How to Write an Ensemble Cast in Your Novel

How to Write an Ensemble Cast

Some of the most beloved stories start with a ragtag band, a scrappy group of buddies, or a rogue’s gallery setting off on adventures. But that doesn’t mean that writing an ensemble cast is easy. When your book has more than three “main” roles in the cast, it’s tough to know how to distinguish your characters on the page. You don’t want a reader to be lost wondering how to tell your characters apart, and you definitely want to make each character in your novel interesting and unique.

So if you’re writing a book with an ensemble cast, how do you make sure it’s working—and not overloading the reader? Here are some best practices for plotting out a story with lots of characters.

Introduce them slowly.
Knowing how to engage your reader is key for any kind of book, but when writing an ensemble cast, it’s especially clutch. Starting your novel with a busy scene full of seven characters talking quickly is an easy way to scare your reader off. Instead, break your characters into “clumps,” and introduce them in groups of no more than three to keep confusion to a minimum. For added depth, introduce your characters in individual, unique settings—it’s easier to remember three girls who were chatting at a frozen yogurt shop and two who were at track practice than five girls who were all talking in the hallway at school.

Play to types.
Many guides to writing an ensemble cast will warn you against creating a “one of each type” cast, where each character has a different archetype. But writers do this for a reason: it helps. Creating unique characters often, counterintuitively, requires playing to familiar tropes that give the reader a foothold in your world, and using character archetypes is a solid way to do so. Consider The Breakfast Club or Ocean’s Eleven; these stories need their characters to have “types” so that the story feels well-rounded. But even characters that are more demographically similar can each take up a “role”: for example, in Mean Girls, you have the three Plastics: Regina the Queen Bee, Gretchen the second-hand man, and Karen the airhead, but also Cady, the straight-man main character, and Janis, the rebel. They’re all teenage girls, but even just picturing them, you can tell them apart—that’s the power of archetypes! The archetypes don’t stop the film from being hilarious and non-generic; they merely give the viewer a point of access.

Vary the speech patterns.
Just like when writing a book in dual point of view, you want to make sure that each character sounds different from all the other characters. Ideally, the reader will know who’s speaking just by the words on the page, without any need for dialogue tags. This can work especially well in SF/F novels, when you’re creating your own fantasy language, because you have that much more flexibility to experiment and play around with registers of formality, slang, and so on.

Watch them move.
No two characters should move the same—especially when in an ensemble cast. Use strong, individualized verbs to make their movements come alive, not just when they’re walking from place to place, but when they’re sitting (or slumping, sleeping in, slipping out of) their chair. Likewise, give them physical tics: maybe one character plays with her hair, or maybe one has a nervous habit of polishing his glasses. Don’t overdo it—too much repetition will drive your readers crazy—but use it as a way to ground the reader and bring back their focus to each character.

Don’t be afraid to signpost.
The classic writing advice “show, don’t tell” can get lead very quickly to very muddy writing when writing a novel with an ensemble cast. There may be times where you simply have to specify explicitly who each person is. Don’t shy away from stating things like family relationships, age, jobs, or other “un-showable” character attributes—a few of these plainly-stated facts now and again are like signposts for the reader. They help the reader know which way to go and keep her from getting lost in the weeds.

Make their names stand out.
If you have a John, James, and Jake, your reader is not going to know how to tell your characters apart. Similarly, a Lexie, Katie, Angie, and Molly can throw off the reader’s mental register because all the names end in the same “ee” sound. Vary length of syllables, first letter, and vowel sounds to keep things identifiable, and make sure your beta readers aren’t getting tripped up.

Consider your POV.
If you’re writing from multiple characters’ first-person POV, you’re not really writing an ensemble cast; you’re writing a novel in alternating POV. Which is okay! That’s a different practice but still an acceptable stylistic choice. Generally speaking, in novels, an ensemble cast is written in third person limited (i.e., restricted to one character’s emotions and insights), or third person omniscient (i.e., able to hop between character’s heads within a single scene). If you’re having trouble figuring out which POV to use for an ensemble cast, start simply and work up: third person limited will give you a static point to shape your story around as you get to know the cast, rather than forcing you to juggle the challenges of omniscience while also building up three-plus unique characters.

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The Right and Wrong Ways to Write Dual Point of View

Writing a book in alternating point of view is becoming more and more common. While books in the third person have often switched between several narrators (lookin’ at you, Harry Potter), “alternating POV” or “dual POV” refers to two (or occasionally more) first person narrators who trade off chapters or scenes to tell a story. For authors writing a YA love story, this can be a popular choice, because it allows the reader to get into the mind of two characters at once on an intimate, personal, sensory level.

But just because writing in alternating POV has advantages doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. Like all stylistic choices, an author has to make it for a reason, and then follow through with the best execution possible. In short, there are good dual point of view books, and then there are…less good ones. Here’s how to know the different.

Right: There’s a reason to use two viewpoints.
Simple fact: writing craft matters. Stylistic decisions can’t be arbitrary. If one character is a relatively flat character, who won’t grow much over the course of the story and doesn’t have a lot of bearing on the action, is it really necessary for them to get a lion’s share of the narration? The best dual POV stories use the two narrators to tell two sides of a story (especially a crime or mystery—think Gone Girl), get inside the head of each character in a couple as they fall in love (like in Perfect Chemistry, Pushing the Limits, or He Said, She Said) or two characters who start in different geographical places and eventually come together (like Will Grayson, Will Grayson).

Wrong: Both viewpoints convey the same character growth, plot information, or thematic material.
Again, if the dual POV is just hitting the same notes again and again, it’s just dragging the pacing and taking twice as long to tell one story. Unless you’re going full-on Rashomon with your storytelling (which is a valid option!) you need to make sure your alternating POV doesn’t merely retell the same scene twice in a different voice.

Right: The voices sound—and look—distinct from one another.
Developing character voice is crucial in any book. Developing character voice in dual POV books is, well, twice as crucial. Good dual POV books have two narrators that sound entirely like themselves—and not like each other. They should use opposite (or contrasting) registers of speech, formality, slang, and so on. But consider, too, the amount of psychic distance in each: does one narrator wear her heart on her sleeve, while the other one keeps a tight lock on his emotions? Is one character up close and personal with sensory details, while the other is very much locked in intellectualizing and philosophy? Finally, consider the white space on the page. A very powerful way to distinguish between narrators is to utilize the psychological phenomena of white space on the page—a page with lots of line breaks and short paragraphs will subconsciously register as a very different voice than one with dense, wordy paragraphs.

Wrong: The voices are indistinguishable.
Once again, dual POV has to count! And if the experience of reading the two characters is the same for each, then there’s no reward for the reader. Give your book to an editor without the chapters named with narrators: can she tell which is which? If so, you’re doing great. If not…time to revise.

Right: The right character narrates the right scene.
Balancing which scenes get told by which characters is one of the trickiest parts of writing dual POV novels. Usually, one character shouldn’t dominate in terms of word count; you want an even split between the two. But well-executed dual POV not only balances the amount of “camera time” each narrator gets, but also makes sure that each scene is giving to the character whose POV will be most affecting in rendering the action. When it doubt, hand the narrative reins to the character who has the most to lose in that scene. That’s a surefire way to make sure that the emotional stakes for the narrator—and therefore the reader—will stay high.

Wrong: Some POV switches are just a “reset.”
If several scenes (or chapters) in a row are in the same character’s POV, it can be tempting to revise by inserting scenes in the other character’s POV in between to “break up” the stretches of the first character’s narration. But switching POVs just for its own sake doesn’t work; it just slows things down and waste the reader’s time. If you find yourself with lots of limp scenes in one character’s POV, you either have to find a way to insert some structure and dynamism to those scenes, or revisit whether dual POV is right for this story.

Right: Each character has their own world.
Setting might seem like the one thing that doesn’t change from character to character, but in fact it’s one of the most important things that does change. First person allows the reader to experience the setting through the eyes and experiences of a particular character…which means that each character who narrates will see the setting differently. A less-well-off character will notice the shabbiness of his bedroom and feel ashamed, while his wealthy co-narrator may only notice that he’s got a lot of basketball posters in there. Dual POV is always subjective, and setting is no exception.

Wrong: The writer gets no outside input.
Writing two first-person narrators in a single novel is essentially writing two entire stories—all the character growth, plot, pacing, and prose has to be there times two. While drafting may come easily, it can be easy to lose steam and hard to stay motivated while revising, since you’re so close to the material that it can be hard to tell whether or not you’ve broken any of these rules. You’ll really need someone who isn’t you—who doesn’t know these characters as intimately as you do—to gauge whether or not you’re pulling it off. An outside editor can really help bring a professional and impartial eye to your work, and make your dual POV shine.

 

Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.

Writing a romance kissing scene

How to Write A Heart-Stopping Kissing Scene

There comes a time in writing a romance novel (even writing a YA romance!) when it’s time to, well, kiss and tell. Even if you’re writing a romance with no clichés, a first kiss is pretty much a given. Your characters are dying for it, your readers are definitely dying for it, and all the action of the story has built to this one moment. So how do you write a love scene that starts out with a kiss—and delivers everything the reader wants?

Build to the kiss to create romantic tension.
By the time your characters lock lips, they should be desperate to do it—whether they’re conscious of it or not. Each scene that precedes the kissing scene should build on the characters’ budding desire for each other, and the subtler, the better. Ground your character’s reactions in the physical (racing heart, fluttery stomach, hyperawareness of the other person’s presence) so that your reader knows they want to kiss the romantic interest long before they do.

Pick a good scene location.
Maybe your story naturally lends itself to the kiss occurring in a particular place—writing a fantasy romance with a long voyage? They’ll probably just have to kiss on the windswept face of a mountain—but if you can be flexible, try to change it up. Where’s a location that both characters feel comfortable? How about uncomfortable? What about a place they can’t stay in for long—tension! Or a place that’s just plain hilarious.

Throw a curveball.
Similarly, maybe there’s a reason your characters get to—or have to!—kiss that isn’t motivated by their own desires for each other. A school play, a need to create a distraction, a dare, a few too many beers…start with a convoluted premise and let the feelings play out. The suddenness of the kiss will shock the reader…and then delight her.

Don’t get too mushy.
“Is this a kissing book?” Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean you have to get goopy with your language. Keep your prose lean and your adjectives to a minimum; forget all the “limpid pools” and “soft as rose petals” and let your character’s authentic voice shine through. If they’re sarcastic, let them be a little funny and wry. If they’re angsty, let them struggle with the onslaught of emotion. Temper the romance with reality to keep it grounded and authentic.

Try not to name too many feelings.
Kissing is an overwhelming act of physical affection—so much so that people don’t tend to verbalize their emotions while they’re doing it. A character isn’t going to think “I’m so happy!” “This must be love!” when she’s kissing that cutie for the first time, so don’t take that shortcut for the sake of telegraphing to the reader what she’s feeling. Instead…

Use all your senses.
The great part about kissing (ahem) is that it involves so many physical sensations—touch, of course, but also (ahem again) taste. But don’t limit yourself to the obvious: consider what your characters are hearing, what their kissing partner looks and smells like, and generally what’s going on around them. How does the air feel around them? The couch they’re sitting on? THe smell of the sweaty house party? Don’t editorialize the kissing scene with too many labels; just notice every sensation they’re feeling and transcribe it to the page.

Leave your reader wanting more.
The first kiss isn’t the time for eternal promises. Even if this couple is going to get the happily ever after they deserve, the first kiss isn’t when they figure that out. Ending your first kiss scene with a pledge of fidelity isn’t just moving too fast—it’s boring. Without the question of whether the couple will end up together hanging in the air, the romance loses all its tension. Writing a good romantic scene at this stage in the manuscript (unless the first kiss is literally the last scene, or close to) means giving your reader a reason to keep going—and the only way to do that is to withhold the resolution.

How to Write A YA Romance Without Cliché

YA fans are some of the most dedicated readers on the planet: they buy tons of books, tear through them voraciously, and worship the couples that earn their adoration. But write flat, stereotypical, or hackneyed, and these readers will not be pleased. The good news is, with a little smart revision (and not too much revision), you can make sparks fly. Whether you’re writing a fairy tale retelling, fantasy, or contemporary, here are some strategies for writing a romance that’s truly one in a million.

Cool it with all the physical description.
Do we need to know that your heroine has auburn hair, full lips, a sprinkling of freckles, and long eyelashes? Writing extensive paragraphs describing your characters is—no pun intended—a turn-off. It means you’re not trusting the reader to picture the characters herself, it slows down the action, and it weakens the writing overall. Use description as a springboard to establish the voice of the POV character, but don’t overdo it.

Avoid the oh-so-quirky factor.
There’s nothing wrong with the adorkable character: it works for Zooey Deschanel, and it works for many stories on the page. But there are some too-precious elements that can be huge turnoffs, not just to readers, but to agents, editors, and other industry pros, too. These include, but are not limited to: wearing Chuck Taylors, “half-smiling,” green eyes, curly hair, and anything that makes a heroine “not like other girls.” These things may seem original, but in fact, they’re tired and insufferable. Instead, branch out by writing heroes and heroines who don’t fit in the conventional modes of “beauty” and would normally be overlooked; that’s a real opportunity for nonconformism.

Make your characters imperfect.
This does not mean giving them small but forgivable charming qualities (see above), but instead, really digging deep and making them human. Write characters that are occasionally sloppy, mean, selfish, lazy, or rude. They need to feel like people—and teenage people at that. It’s okay to let them be cranky once in a while. Just so long as they don’t become unredeemable misanthropes, readers will appreciate the candor and authenticity of characters that gripe and flounder—rather than sail effortlessly—through life.

Dial back the physical beauty.
Similarly, don’t make your characters paragons of physical attractiveness. Not only does it reinforce cultural stereotypes of what’s “beautiful” and “acceptable” (e.g., girls who are white, thin, and able-bodied), but it makes your characters’ personalities worth less. If the love interest only likes your character for their looks, why should the reader assume there’s anything more to him or her?

NO instalove.
It’s what it sounds like: two characters that fall, well, instantly in love. Attraction takes time, and is confusing, and is often hidden under layers of competing feelings like envy, anxiety, or dislike. Don’t have your characters lay their feelings bare too early—it robs your story of momentum, and gives reviewers an easy slip-up to pounce on.

Cut out the tired phrasing.
“I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding.” “I melted at his touch.” “I shattered into a thousand pieces.” This bordering-on-purple prose will irk a reader at best, and at worst, make her throw the book across the room. Find unique ways to express your character’s inner monologue, and don’t rely on what YA is “supposed to sound like.” Some of the most romantic, unexpectedly sexy moments in romance use words and phrases that aren’t anywhere near the stock vocabulary of love and romance. Be creative.

Make it awkward.
Do you remember your first teenage kiss? Yeah, hardly a world-ending act of timeless romance. Let your characters miss, clack teeth, elbow each other in the ribs, and not know how to take off a bra. It’s not only genuine; it’s adorable.

Hold back on the HEA.
Many real-life lifelong romances blossom in high school, which is fantastic, adorable, and enviable! But let’s be real: most teen couples are not destined to be together forever and ever. And that’s okay! That doesn’t make the relationship any less powerful—in fact, it increases the intensity because the experience will end up being so formative for the characters. Don’t feel that you need to tack on some hint (or explicit epilogue—looking at you, JKR) that the characters all end up coupled forever until the end of time. Unlike adult romance, where a happily-ever-after is de rigueur, it’s okay to end a YA romance on a note of “happy for now,” or even of total uncertainty.

 

Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.