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Ensemble Casts: How much and how fast?

My story is still just in the planning stages, but I know for a fact it will be an ensemble cast. I know, it's incredibly ambitious and easy to lose control of. When done effectively, you get a real sense of epic scale balanced with these intricate and varied character studies that come together to weave a single tale. I'm just not sure how to begin.

Do you start with one or two characters, and slowly branch out?

Do you introduce a whole bunch of characters in the beginning, then branch off into following a handful of subplots?

I love all my characters. They are all my special snowflakes. But how do you get down to the brass tacks of deciding which one's are integral to the main plot, and which are merely interesting secondary characters?

I want my story to be wide and complex, but not rambling and confusing.


Myth Weaver
I advise you to start small and let things grow as you go along. Starting off with too many characters will just lead to confusion for you and your readers.


Article Team
I think either way will work. IMHO You just have to be a little strategic with your introductions. If this were me and if possible, in the first few chapters, not only would I have the POV character, I'd try to have as many of the characters that will be POV characters in the future be in the background and/or being interacted with.

That way when you go to a different POV in another chapter, it doesn't feel like you're being dropped into a completely different story. Of course, this may not be possible if all your POV characters are geographically separated.

To toot my own horn here a little, here's a link to a short article I wrote that'll give you some things to consider in terms of length of story when dealing with multiple POVs. The Metrics of Writing


toujours gai, archie
Why will it be an ensemble? Is this a fellowship sort of story?

Within the ensemble, whose story is this? Do you have a clear idea of that?

How many characters are we talking about?
I did not set out to create an ensemble piece, that's for sure. But as I started spit balling ideas for my world state, several compelling characters showed up. I feel like they would each move the plot forward while offering unique perspectives. All told, I have 3-4 main characters with a good half dozen secondary/teritary characters outlined in my head already.

I feel like the main storyline that I've begun sketching out lies squarely on 3 people with the 4th acting as more of an everyman, lead the reader into the world sort of way. But currently, it is not one single person's story.

As I said earlier, it's hard to step away from these characters that I love so much already and cut things down. But I suppose I'm getting ahead of myself. I should really nail down a plot arc and conclusion first, then decide who best to use to tell it.

Deleted member 4265

I'm writing a story with a somewhat large cast as well. I had to cut a large number of them out (which was very painful but better for the story as a whole) I now have it down to three main characters and quite a few more minor characters.

Unfortunately I haven't figured out the best way to do it yet. What I'm doing is introducing each one as late as possible in my first draft. Some of the characters are going to need a lot more build-up and foreshadowing because the reader needs to know them before they do anything important (one of my major characters isn't relevant to the main plot until over halfway through the novel) but I'll do all that in edits. I find at least in the preliminary draft less is more because otherwise I could get buried alive in a pile of fascinating subplots that will never lead back to the main plot and for me its so much easier to add details than to take them out.


toujours gai, archie
For what it's worth, I went through a similar challenge. I started with the basic story idea--goblins invade the Roman Empire. Since I base it on historical events, I already had basic geography and timing, but I didn't have a main character. I began with Theodosius, who eventually became emperor after Valens. But I had a scene written and in that scene there was this other character who was a cynical smart-mouth and was way more interesting than Theodosius. Plus, when you deal with a historical character, you're constrained by the events of his life, whereas I could do with this Julian fellow whatever I wanted.

He became the MC.

But also in that scene was a tribe of barbarians, who were the first people to encounter these goblins and who were the first humans to be able to use magic. And among them there was this young woman. I'll spare all the details, but she evolved into my magic sword-wielding barbarian princess in exile.

Two main characters.

Finally, Marcus Salvius intruded. First Tribune of the XII Legion and mostly just a foil for Julian, he evolved into a more genuine counter-point and the unexpected love interest of Inglena, the barbarian princess.

Three main characters.

Others have tried out. A smuggler/merchant. A Macedonian slave. A common soldier from another legion. But when the time came to start cutting, to push characters into the background, these others pushed. Julian, Marcus and Inglena would not push. More specifically, crucial parts of the story could not be told except from their POV. Most of the time it works well; once in a while it gets messy, and a few times forcing myself to view events from another POV has been really helpful.

Now, somewhere out there in the world are authors who can anticipate all this up front, or who just naturally pick the One True MC, and boom the story happens. I think these are what they call 'talented' people. But for me, all I can do is to bring characters on stage and see how they do. My novels are little better than extended auditions followed by harrowing editing. Some of the blood on the floor is always mine.

Also, fwiw, actually choosing one MC doesn't seem to help matters. Some things get easier but other challenges arise.

K.S. Crooks

In my current WIP I have four main characters and five secondary characters. Because my main characters live in different places, in the first two chapters I have sub-chapters regarding each person (where they are, what they're doing) and show how they come to be together. Critical for me, I had to understand the major events of my story and decide who I wanted to be together when they happen. My characters eventually split into two groups and each confronts a different adversary. Knowing who I wanted on each smaller team toward the end of the story made it easier to organize the characters at the beginning.


From personal experience, writing an ensemble epic is really just like writing lots of short novellas. It's much easier if you think about it that way!


I would start smaller and do it gradually. I recently started reading a book in which about 12 characters are introduced in the first 3 chapters, not all POV but still, I can remember about 3 of their names and not much about any of them. I just about got a grasp of who was the 'baddie' and who was the 'goodie'.

Needless to say about a third of the way into the book and without an inciting incident I stopped reading.

I would start gradually, with just a couple. You can bring in new characters later, possibly just as people that meet another POV character to give an introduction before flipping to their POV.

I like how Branden Sanderson did it in the Mistborn trilogy I read recently, started off with only a couple of POV characters but by the third book you had multiple POVs and felt you knew each of the characters.
Ha! I like that. Sort of an "America's Got Talent" for my characters. If it makes you feel any better, I can't plan stuff out ahead of time to save my life. Generally, I think of major plot points I want to hit and then write it out from the perspective of each of my main characters. Then, I go back and reread them to decide which ones I want to keep as stand alone, which can be combined or moved into the background, and which should be deleted entirely. I try to loosely keep the "center stage" time for my main characters equal over the course of the entire story, but it all depends on how they perform.
Oh, good idea! Hmm..it has been my dream to one day pair up with a talented visual artist and generate some graphic novels, which would be similar.


The best advice i can give for this is to first have a flow chart of what needs to happen and what happens when certain events are triggered, then determine where each character would start in the story, and follow where they would end up due to their abilities.