"You have too many characters, I can't keep track of all the names!"
If this sounds familiar, congratulations! You're a writer, Harry. Welcome to another episode of:
Ellie Raine's School of Wordcraft and Scribery!
Today we will discuss how to keep a level head while writing a large amount of characters in an Epic Fantasy series.
As any connoisseur of epics will tell you, the hero(ine)'s party can be packed with characters--and even the parties without them can get a bit on the crowded side. If you're writing epic fantasy, especially as a series, then you may have been overwhelmed with your rapidly increasing characters as the story progressed. Or maybe you haven't because you're a God among epic writers, and if so, I bow to your divine prowess!
But for the rest of us humble epic-scribes, it probably goes something like this:
Book 1 wasn't all that bad.
You set up the world, introduced the main characters and maybe a few secondary characters, touched on the magic system and general plot... no problem. You might have had some bumps and serious edits to make along the way (did I spell that character's name three different ways?) but overall, it was a herd you could coral like a capable writer, if you did say so yourself.
Book 2 was a new hill to climb.
Not only did you have to recap what happened in the first book (unless you decided to opt out of a recap) but you had new characters to introduce. A new villain, a new comrade, that random peddler harassing your protagonist and ended up being a new addition to the party--okay, now you've got a big bundle of characters to sort through. But it's nothing you can't handle. It's just a larger party to host than your last shindig.
Book 3... wait...
Recap the second book... and the first... both parties from the last books, another 5-20 characters tossed in... er... *Re-reads the first book* Wait, where in Death has that minor character been? Did he disappear in the last book? Crap, is there anyone else I forgot existed??
Book 4 *sobs*
And so on.
So, how do you keep your ears dry whilst drowning in the sea of characters? Organization. Make plans, maps, charts, group your characters according to type, class, nationality, ANYTHING.
Everyone has their own method of organization, so make your notes the way they'll be most effective for you. White board? Sticky notes? Phone app? Good ol' fashion notepad? The sky's the limit, so take your pick. It'll be fun**! (**Maybe.)
My personal method is to make several different charts: Group, class, magic type, location, allegiance, etc.
Let's use a battle scene as an example.
Before I type a single scythe into that scene, I first draw a chart (or list) of characters who will be included in the scene. But it's rarely ever the same format. Sometimes, I draw a chart detailing which characters will survive as well as a separate list of who will take an ax to the neck--and sometimes, I list how many magic-users are in the party and sort them based on which elements they wield (as well as what role they play in the fight).
Based on these lists, I basically scan the character names and determine the top three who I believe are most important to the scene. Once the top three have been chosen, I list the order of their priority and focus my writing accordingly.
The key is to keep focused. The more pinpointed the scope, the smoother your scenes will flow. It helps to illustrate what is happening for the audience to fully enjoy.
-Avoid listing name after name.
It's clutter, and immensely confusing. No one is going to memorize fifteen names crammed into two sentences back to back. Keep it vague if you can. If you can group them together with *clearly intended* kennings or battle roles (or better yet, use a few "the others" or "the rest"). If you elect to use kennings, do make sure that, with whatever word you choose, it must be absolutely clear which character you're talking about. Otherwise, forget it.
-Are you sure you need that character?
Sometimes the hardest job as a writer is to delete entire characters. We've already imagined their entire lives (except for that random vagrant who stole your party's coin purses--which was really just your attempt at creating conflict that you ended up deleting altogether) and our brains have now solidified their existence as a necessity. But if your writing's elbow room is steadily shrinking, take a step back and consider that maybe, just maybe, your story could do without them. But how do you determine that? I usually ask myself three questions:
1. Are they important to the main story?
2. Do they add so much aesthetic appeal that my story would feel empty without them?
3. Will I fall out of love with my story if they're gone?
If all questions were answered with "no", they're fired. Turn in your badge and scythe, I want that desk cleared by nine.
-Off with his head!
Don't know what to do with a character? For a limited time only, try killing him and get 40% off your next impaling!
-Time to split up, gang.
If your characters are growing cumbersome, slice 'em up and spread them out. You can always switch the focus between the separate groups if need be.
So, with all this in mind, knock yourself out (or better yet, your characters)! Have fun!
P.S: Grab a tissue.