So I have a lot of characters in my book. Some of them are introduced in the first novel but play a larger role in the other two books, some of them are pretty important to the first story, and some of them are somewhere between background character and secondary character (yes, yes, I know, they’re called tertiary characters but I’m learning that can be a very loose and broad term). You know, those character who are important for a chapter or two but once the protagonist leaves that setting, they most likely won’t make a comeback? But they are important in that short span of time.
I have made a few lists over the years of all my characters in Dragon Kin. Some of them I have managed to cut, and once i was even able to combine two characters into one, although if you’ll allow me a the cliche writer moment, it wasn’t entirely my decision. The side character took off his hood and suddenly it was someone who wasn’t supposed to make an appearance until the second book. I told him to go away, but he wouldn’t listen, and darn it if it doesn’t make the series stronger for it.
So lately I’ve been keeping a sharp eye out for stories that deal with large casts of characters and how they deal with so many people. I know giving the primary and secondary protagonists/antagonists an arc and purpose are crucial, but you simply cannot give every person that same journey or you’ll lose the characters that matter most.
I took my mother to see a movie for Mother’s day. It was a 2017 film called C’est La Vie, and it’s a funny French film about this huge wedding staff all trying to do their own jobs on the big day when everyone’s too wrapped up in their own problems to communicate with each other, and the poor boss who’s trying to keep everyone on track as things spiral further and further out of control. It’s an absolutely wonderful film, I highly recommend seeing it. But I paid very close attention to how they dealt with so many people in such a relatively small amount of time. And one of the things I noticed was the same technique Charles Dickens was famous for in his own stories. Give these characters a defining trait. That’s not to say you need to do something over the top, like always having someone wear a pink tutu even when they’re on the street, or wear a bunny costume and end every sentence with a nasally laugh. Maybe this would work for your story, and if it does I think you’re very brave for treading such a fine line between what is no doubt the hilarious and the unrealistically absurd. No, it can be something much more subtle. I think my favourite Charles’ Dickens character has always been the Artful Dodger, and although he tends to play a much larger part in movie and TV adaptations of Oliver he had much smaller role in the book. But he was always known for his contrasting appearance of a dirty street urchin child, wearing adult clothes of a top hat and an overly large man’s coat and corduroy trousers. In all the adaptations I’ve seen he’s always worn those hat and the clothes. In C’est La Vie, one of the characters used to be a teacher, and would always correct people’s grammar, even going so far as to change the seating labels.
I know I’ve read a few books where a character comes back and there’s a moment of who’s this again? And it always helps to get that little subtle reminder so I can go back to enjoying the story rather than searching for clues as to who the heck this one is. Was that the guy from the beginning or the one that sold them the lamp? But I’ve also learned its equally important to make that trait linked to who they are. Dodger was the street kid with men’s clothes because he’s always been a bit at odds with looking like a child and being forced to act like an adult from a very young age. If the little detail is something that tells us something about the character, we will remember them and connect with them better. The detail tells us something about who they are, they’ll seem a bit more human (or at least three dimensional for all of us Fantasy/Sci Fi writers).
I’ve also gotten the great advice to remember they have a life outside of your story. They aren’t sitting around waiting for the story to come to them, they’re out living and doing their own thing and our story happens to intersect with their lives. We don’t need to delve into their backstory or anything, but something little, like having them be on their way to see their sick grandmother rather than just having them standing around, waiting for us to write them back into existence can make them seem more fleshed out.
Anyways, these are just some of the ideas I’ve encountered so far on how to deal with large character lists. It’s still something I’m struggling with, but having a few ideas for those tertiary characters has really helped strengthen their interactions with the other characters. Just have a vague idea of who they are in your own mind, and drop a few humanizing traits and tidbits in dialogue or action to make their existence feel fuller.