Art of the Cameo: Using Familiar Faces in Newer Works

Wolverine and Punisher

First, I can’t tell if Wolverine’s eyes are all white or the black in the nose-corners are his crossed pupils.  Sorry if I’ve made it that you can only see that now.

I mentioned yesterday that cameos for the surviving heroes and villains is a strong possibility in future Windemere.  I mean, it won’t happen with War of Nytefall since that happens prior to Legends of Windemere.  Unless we count the gods, but I really don’t.   I did try a cameo for Zaria and Stephen in Life & Times of Ichabod Brooks and it was okay.  Nobody got really excited and there’s a good chance that many didn’t get the connection.  Why would somebody if they never read the main series up to Stephen’s debut and make the full connection?

Since one of my main goals is to create a book world with multiple series, cameos are an important tool.  Showing characters in other stories reveals a timeline and makes it clear that this is the same world.  Not only characters, but locations, monsters, and historical stories.  Though we really only use the term ‘cameo’ for a named figure.  For example, Gaia showing up in every series does drive home the fact that it is the largest city in Windemere, but we wouldn’t call it a cameo.  Luke Callindor occasionally walking into a story would be one even if he’s nothing more than a guy the main character meets at the bar.  By the way, this is very different from characters who are supporting or central to multiple series.  I have at least one of those.

After thinking about this trick for so long, I have come up with a few rules that I tell myself to make sure I don’t go too far:

  1. If doing it for a smile then make it brief and a little vague.  The cameo shouldn’t upstage the main hero in this scenario.  Make a simple ‘look at that’ and move back into the story.  For example, Timoran should not wander through to take out a band of villains that the main hero was going to handle.  It weakens the new guy and serves no purpose for Timoran.
  2. Most cameos need to be for story.  As much fun as it is to slip an old face into the new story, it’s better to give these events purpose.  Not so much a passing of the torch, but an actual interaction that can alter the story’s path.  Again, not to overshadow in terms of power since it will be clear that this familiar face is strong or at least famous.  It can be a conversation, brief mentorship, a new villain might be targeting the old hero, or stumbling into each other.  This really depends on how the person doing the cameo ended their own tail.
  3. Never just throw in an old face for the heck of it and with no forethought.  This can lead to you being sloppy and focus on the wrong thing.
  4. Make sure the cameos make sense in terms of location and personality.  Running into Queen Trinity on Shayd makes sense.  Finding her on a pirate ship crew makes no sense since she wouldn’t abandon her people.  Once you put in a cameo, you’re making a connection that can help or harm continuity.

That last part is incredibly important.  Continuity is a fragile thing and we all slip up from time to time.  Adding a cameo into the mix raises the risk of undoing something you might have forgotten about from the earlier series.  This is mostly in terms of epilogues or the telling of stories, which can be chalked up to bad memory of the character.  I might be thinking more about prequels too on this one.  Having a previous hero show up in a series that takes place before their own can really do some damage.  Betting we can all think of at least one example of this.  Just another reason cameos shouldn’t be thrown out with wild abandon.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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14 Responses to Art of the Cameo: Using Familiar Faces in Newer Works

  1. Excellent advice. I plan a cameo for my next book and think I will pay attention to what you say.

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  2. L. Marie says:

    I love a good cameo. These are good rules to follow. If ever I have a cameo in a book, I’m glad I can go back to this advice.

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  3. Good rules to live by, I had never given the cameo angle a thought before.

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  4. Great topic. I would think if you make them interesting enough, it could be a nice promo for the main series too. Maybe make a pitch in the back material to go along with it.

    I used celebrity cameos in Panama, but that isn’t quite the same. Still toying with the idea of a team adventure using a bunch of my characters, and then I’ll need your tips.

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    • The pitch would depend on how important the character cameo is. If it’s just Sari passing by in a tavern then making a mention of it on the back cover might not come off well. I’ve seen people complain about the promotion of a character cameo that is nothing more than a brief appearance with no impact on the overall story. Though, this is more with series that are on equal footing instead of a spin-off one-shot.

      How did you do the celebrity cameos? I’ve seen a lot of people shy away from those due to fear of a lawsuit.

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  5. If I might argue, when you have a long series with a lot of characters, one of the great things is having that tapestry to weave into. Longtime readers will look forward to those cameos and consider it part of the richness in your creation.

    Back in to 1980s and ’90s I was part of a shared-world set on Pern, with an established cast of characters owned by 60-some members of a group. Not all the members were strong writers, so it was really important to bring them in with cameos when possible. Of course, there was also a process of approval to go through, and in those days that meant snail mail. Ah, good times…

    Sure, cameos have to make sense, but I would never shy from a cameo if you can make it work.

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    • Making it work is key. I’ve seen a few recently that felt out of place and done simply for attention. There really should be an organic feel to the cameo. For example, me having Fizzle show up in an urban adventure to only snatch an apple and go. It would get attention from long time readers, but not make any sense for a character more likely to be found in the wild.

      Basically, I do think there is a modern trend of adding cameos and Easter eggs to works. It’s done with little care for the characters, but solely to play this weird game of spot the nods. So it is a tool that I feel should be considered carefully even by the original author.

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