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Managing Your Cast

           If you believe mystery writers, an awful lot of murders take place in isolated country cottages or on ships at sea or on snowed-in trains.  This kind of isolation makes it harder for the killer to escape, but it limits the cast, which makes the writer’s job easier.  It limits the number of suspects, and readers know everyone from the beginning.  Some more of them may turn up dead before the end, and one or two may turn out to be long-lost heirs or imposters.  But the dramatis personae is stable from the beginning.

What do you do if your cast is less well behaved, though, given to popping in and out of the narrative in unpredictable ways?  Maybe your plot structure leaves you no choice but to introduce a character early on and then sideline them or bring in a new character late in the game.  Your readers naturally expect that your cast of characters is stable – that they know who the important players are as they read through the story.  If you drop a memorable character halfway through, readers are going to subconsciously expect him or her to show up again before the end.  If you introduce a new key character near the end, readers are going to feel cheated.  Part of the joy of reading is anticipating what’s coming next [1], and readers get upset when you hand them something they couldn’t have seen coming.

I’m currently editing a story that, near the beginning, introduces a sharply-drawn character – the main character’s boss – who has an intriguing relationship with her.  The boss later plays a key role in the main character’s life.  The problem is, as the writer got deeper into the story, it grew to the point that it needed to be broken into three books, and the memorable boss we met at the beginning of book one doesn’t reappear until book two.

My client can’t just cut the character.  She’s going to need him eventually, and readers need to know how the boss gets along with the main character before she undergoes some serious changes in that first book.  The most straightforward solution would be to create some independent subplot involving the boss that my client could cut to from time to time as the story progresses, just to remind readers he’s still there.

But that would mean rearranging the plot quite a bit.  Another, more subtle way to get around this problem is to make all of the characters in this earlier part of the story as memorable as the boss the client will later need.  If he is just one more sharply drawn character among many, then he will stand out less – readers will assume the detailed attention my client spends on him (such as scenes from his point of view) is simply her chosen style.

You can also run into problems bringing a key character in near the end.

I recently worked with another client whose main character reconciles with his ex-wife toward the end of the story, when he gives her emotional support after her brother dies of a drug overdose.  Until that point, we had no idea the brother existed.  It feels unfair, because it’s an emotional side of the ex-wife that we haven’t seen before that point – her concern about her brother isn’t part of her character as we’ve come to picture her.

My client didn’t have to go so far as to introduce the brother as a character, though that might have helped.  After all, his only contribution to the story is to die, and usually the less critical a character is in the ending, the less attention you can pay to them beforehand.  But the sister’s feelings about her brother had to be a presence in the story.  The trick is to introduce the brother in enough detail that readers aren’t surprised when he shows up near the end, yet not make him so prominent that readers know my client is going to use him for something.

My suggestion was to give the brother a reason for being part of the cast that had nothing to do with the reconciliation.  Perhaps he was stealing from her, which is why she got upset when the main character missed some child support payments.  Perhaps she needs the money to pay for her brother’s rehab.  Perhaps her brother was the reason she was planning to move out of state and take the main character’s daughter with her – another bone of contention between her ex and her.  Either way, readers would be aware that the brother was playing an important role in his sister’s life before he pops back into the story at the end to die.

So ask yourself who the major and minor players are.  When do they appear?  How long do they stick around?  Readers make a subconscious assumption that they know the entire cast from the beginning.  Not that it’s something they think about or even notice.  That makes it easy for many writers to overlook.  But when you make mistakes managing your cast, readers are going to feel uncomfortable.  Get it right, and your readers can immerse themselves in your story.


About Dave King [2]

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website [3].