Fading into the Background: Characters and Spotlights

This is a big challenge when it comes to ensemble cast stories.  Yes, there are those that take the reins of the story and others that float into supporting cast.  Yet, each player is important to the overall story.  Unfortunately, you can’t have them be in the spotlight for every volume.  That could result in 20 plots competing for attention if everyone has their own journey.  At best, you can put them into groups of 2 and 3 to give them more time in scenes, but that’s not perfect.  War of Nytefall: Ravenous ran into this problem and the next volume has it as well.  Is this really a bad thing?

For those who love the characters that take a step back, it will be a disaster.  Their favorites aren’t getting the attention they deserve.  Doesn’t matter that they already had at least one volume where they got to shine.  Anger might be aimed at the characters that maintain their status because they have claimed the ‘main’ cast moniker.  You hope this isn’t the case, but people are funny and unpredictable.  Some can turn on a series if you don’t cater to their whims, which you can’t avoid.  There’s a reason characters are rotating in and out of the spotlight over the course of a series.  It helps to keep things fresh and opens for more stories. People don’t always realize that characters may have a specialty instead of being a Jack-of-all-Trades.  This means that there are adventures when they aren’t going to be as useful.

Aside from keeping a series fresh and moving, you get another big benefit.  These characters that are stepping out of their limited roles can be flushed out and gain their own fan-bases.  My goal is always to create a variety of characters, so that readers can connect to at least one of them.  There’s no rule that you can’t have multiple favorites or switch to a new one.  Kai Stavros was a minor character to me until Eradication and now he has a really interesting story arch that will go on for a bit.  Decker is getting some attention in Ravenous and I’m enjoying doing that.  From the hero side, Titus and Bob get to shine a bit more.  They’ve really been in the shadow of Lost, Mab, and Clyde for much of the series.  It’s a more difficult balancing act than with Legends of Windemere because I have a bigger cast and no ‘destiny’ storyline.

I’m laying the groundwork for bigger jumps in this volume because I need a lot of heavy hitters for the finale.  That is the ultimate goal for an ensemble series.  By the end, you want every character to have changed in some respect.  If they were around for everything and remain the same then you missed an opportunity.  That or they’re really a statue and you never realized another character was lugging the thing around.  By the end of even a small series, you need your heroes and villains to be at the final stages of their journey.  If you had to phase them in and out of importance throughout the volumes then that shows you gave them the proper amount of attention.  As an author, we do need to focus on only a handful of plots or we end up with a muddled mess.  At best, we get a book that is thousands of pages long in order to cover everyone from the protagonist to the antagonist to the janitor who cleans up after the battle in chapter 4.  Poor guy wasn’t even supposed to be at work that day.

My point here is that you have to pick and choose when and where to progress with a character.  It’s a challenge because we have our own favorites.  It’s hard to push Lost into the background because I enjoy writing her, but Desirae sure as hell wasn’t going to let that loose cannon run around for long.  I guess you can make your choices depending on the actions of the villain too.  Who would they target or who would be the best choices to get in their way?  It depends on the story.  This is a personal balancing act that I could continue writing about for hours.  Yet, in the end, it comes down to what the author wants and the story needs.

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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19 Responses to Fading into the Background: Characters and Spotlights

  1. I love this post because it’s timely for me. Lanternfish has a huge cast. I relegated some of them to crew, crew with a few scenes, and crew that carries part of the story. My goal was to make sure readers understood there were enough people around to operate this ship. Then I have about half a dozen who are more important and that’s where the hard work comes in. I can’t leave them out, but they need a relevant scene or two because of their status.

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  2. My books have such a small cast that I don’t worry too much about the minors needing to be cared for. A thought-provoking post, Charles.

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  3. L. Marie says:

    As usual you provide a really helpful post. It’s hard, isn’t it, to know how much to showcase a character, especially if you get feedback from readers.

    I’m going way back here (well, I’m old) but I remember when the Fonz was a breakout character on Happy Days. He was good as a secondary character. He became grating when the producers tried to push his character beyond that.

    This is not to say that minor characters can’t become major ones, as you’ve proven. I also think about a YA book written by Melina Marchetta which has an extremely minor character named Tom. But in the sequel to that book (more of a companion book actually), Tom became the main character. The author decided that Tom had a story that needed to be told. I’m so glad she did, because I loved him in that book.

    You have so many good characters so I can see why some wind up starring in other books.

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  4. L. Marie says:

    After posting that, I realize I didn’t finish a sentence in the first paragraph. It should read:

    As usual you provide a really helpful post. It’s hard, isn’t it, to know how much to showcase a character, especially if you get feedback from readers who demand that their favorites get more page time.

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  5. It’s for these reasons I’ve always written about a small cast of characters (usually just one or two), from a third person limited POV. That said, of course I chose to write my debut published book as a massive ensemble cast piece, didn’t I? What was I thinking? Now I’m trying to remember who’s where, who’s doing what, and who’s integral to each scene. It’s a big job for a writer!
    I’ll be breathing a lot easier when I finish this current series, and move on to my next series which has two mains and a bunch of bit players.

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    • Most of my series are based around RPG groups I was in. So, I do a lot of ensembles and try to give everyone a storyline. My next series is easier with one main and a new supporting cast, but it’s still usually a couple characters to juggle. I make it work by taking tons of notes and planning stuff out pretty far in advance.

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  6. You make a great point that, when you have a group of more or less equal characters, the stories become a balancing act. There has to be an interesting contrast between them and the villains. If they are too alike in their personalities or powers, it becomes a foregone conclusion. Or, worse, you can’t tell which one is the hero and which is the villain.

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    • Sometimes you can get away with it though. If both sides make sense that it means readers can believe either one will win. ‘Mirrored’ groups are fairly common in fiction because of this. You also set up the idea that they are on even ground.

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  7. Very excellent points.
    I read a story where many characters had important aspects of the story -and I couldn’t keep them straight!!
    I recently finished a series where the author took each book from the perspective of different characters, and one of the books was from a minor character. I remember thinking I would not have chosen him to tell the story from.
    Then again, I think J.K. Rowling handled her MASSIVE character load very very well; as you pointed out, giving readers someone they loved and related to, giving that character enough limelight to appease but not detract, and keeping their personalities distinct and consistent.

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    • It’s a major balancing act and author perspective can get in the way. The minor character that author chose may have been a bigger one in their own mind. You never know which character in an ensemble cast will be chosen as the main one by a reader. With my first series, people automatically chose Luke Callindor because he’s the first one you meet. Yet, others argued that it was Nyx because she had the greatest connection to the prophecy. Had another camp that swore the main character was Fizzle the tiny dragon that travels with the heroes. So, it gets really shaky when you have an ensemble because people inevitably pick favorites and perspectives change.

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