Some books make me feel like I’m Bilbo Baggins, unsuspectingly opening my door to a heap of dwarves tumbling across the threshold. Characters, titles, relationships, and family dynamics zig-zag past my eyes, creating a buzz in my mind as I stumble through crowded scenes. I’ve heard enough names to fill a genealogy, and I’m only on page two.
A headache at the end of chapter one won’t entice readers to continue to chapter two, especially if forgetting anyone’s identity directly affects their understanding of the plot. But fear of overpopulating your fictional world shouldn’t hinder you from developing richly diverse characters. When skillfully done, a large cast will draw readers in instead of pushing them away. Three simple tactics can help you tame your dwarves so that readers are able to keep track of who’s who—without needing a spreadsheet.
1. Strategically Stagger Introductions
Although shoving everyone into Bilbo’s house causes an amusing situation in The Hobbit, it isn’t an ideal approach for most books. When you focus on multiple characters simultaneously, your scene turns into a greeting line, with so many strangers jostling past that readers can’t possibly remember them all.
Instead, allow readers to meet characters individually or in small groups. N. D. Wilson’s The Dragon’s Tooth overflows with remarkable beings, but he paces their entrances so that he doesn’t overwhelm readers. He devotes a few pages to the protagonist, then he builds layers of characters scene by scene, easing readers into the menagerie.
Try showcasing your characters sequentially. If readers have a chance to process their observations, they won’t get lost in the noise and chaos.
2. Give Characters Defining Features
When I used to work as a cashier, customers would occasionally double back through my line and expect me to recognize them because I rang up their groceries only minutes before. But interacting with hundreds of people each day made distinguishing them difficult—until I glanced up at a pair of brilliant crimson eyes. The guy’s cheap colored contacts startled me so much that I can still picture his face with vivid clarity years later.
Anomalies and quirks spark curiosity that leads to memorability. That’s why Spensa from Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward labels a classroom of pilot cadets according to appearance and demeanor. One has blue hair, one has a strange tattoo, one is bubbly and effervescent, one is grouchy and sullen. These qualities differentiate them far easier than a slew of foreign names, because readers have a visual image to tether their imaginations to.
When you’re bringing characters into your story, highlight their uniqueness—whether it’s unruly hair, an unusual accent, or a frequent mannerism. In their first few scenes, reiterate these traits whenever you mention them. Personalize their actions and speech, so instead of grappling to recall the significance of a name, readers can see who is on stage. Don’t write “Mabel waited in the corner” without adding “playing with her purple braids.” Descriptions prevent anonymity more effectively than a name, no matter how snazzy it sounds.
3. Optimize Characteristic Moments
When I moved to a different state and began attending a new church, I didn’t know a soul in the sanctuary. Although the congregation was friendly, I could only shake so many hands before names slipped in one ear and out the other. The person who stood out was a boy who tripped on an extension cord and face-planted in front of me. My reaction (a combination of shock, concern, and stifled laughter) firmly transfixed him in my memory.
Characteristic moments serve a dual purpose: to introduce and impact. The Fellowship of the Ring hosts a wide variety of characters, but each one arrives in a separate scene and in a surprising way. Merry and Pippin set off fireworks that blow up their tent, Aragorn lurks ominously in the shadows of a tavern, and Gimli attempts to destroy the One Ring with nothing but his ax. The drama lingers in readers’ minds, revealing an aspect of each character’s nature.
When you’re preparing to usher in a new character, lean into his or her specific strengths and weaknesses. If he’s a cranky old man, have him shout at the protagonist to get off his lawn. If she’s a girl with fire powers, show her accidentally incinerating a doll. Not only will you leave a deep impression on readers, you’ll also make the character distinct from whoever else is running around.
Unshackle Your Imagination
Throwing a reader headfirst into a sprawling cast is tantamount to trapping an introvert in a room full of sweaty strangers and expecting her to make friends. (She won’t.) But massive casts are fun. After all, who doesn’t enjoy immersing themselves in a well-rounded group of characters, like Les Miserables or The Stormlight Archive? By slowing down and dwelling on each character, you can craft a vibrant, bustling cast that readers will fall in love with—and won’t struggle to remember who is who.
Sarah Baran views herself as fiercely intimidating, but anyone who’s seen her trip over her own shoelaces knows the truth. She’s a paradox disguised in human form, a purveyor of caustic wit, a reluctant people-lover, and an idealistic cynic who sees the world through cracks in her rose-colored glasses. A love for writing grabbed her in a stranglehold when she was only a child, so she decided to give storytelling a whirl. If she’d known this decision would lead to an unhealthy obsession with daggers and many sleepless nights agonizing over finding the perfect words to describe a tree, she might have opted for a safer career choice. Regardless, she’s never looked back.
When she isn’t writing, Sarah dons the role of grouchy librarian and glares at children over the rims of her glasses. You can find her having a good time at humanity’s expense on her blog, TheSarcasticElf.com.