There are very few writing choices as risky as creating a novel with an ensemble cast. So much could go wrong, especially for the beginning writer. Yet, if done right, the rewards are more than equal to the challenge.
The question is, though, what is the secret to creating a satisfying ensemble cast?
The key, in my opinion, is to give each character at least one major, unique characteristic.
For example, think of The Lord of the Rings. The story is set in a fantasy world that none of the readers can directly relate with. As such, it would be very easy for the characters to blend in with each other.
Four tall characters that live a long time? Ok. But do these characters all come off as the same?
Aragorn is a talented swordsman.
Gandalf is a wise and powerful wizard.
Legolas is an exceptional archer.
Arwen is willing to give up immortality for Aragorn.
Of course, we know that each of these characters holds a unique position in our memory. But they were also much easier to relate to. What about characters that aren’t so easy to relate to, such as the four little hobbits?
Frodo is self-sacrificing and brave.
Samwise is loyal to a fault.
Merry is a troublemaker with a deep-seated sense of duty and honor.
Pippin is clumsy and brash, choosing to act before he thinks.
These four characters could have easily blended together and become indistinguishable from each other, but that’s not the case. While I might argue that Merry and Pippin were not necessarily easy to tell apart in The Fellowship of the Ring, even they eventually developed characteristics that stood out firmly from each other. Compare that with The Hobbit. There are thirteen dwarves in this story, and in the book, they are nearly indistinguishable. While the movie adaptations did make efforts to give them unique qualities, it didn’t help that they all had names that rhymed with each other or simply blended together in a list.
What if the entire cast is made of preteen youths? Well, think of Stephen King’s It. Read off the following list of words and tell me if every character doesn’t immediately pop into your head as clear as day:
That’s not to mention their physical characteristics, such as stutterer, overweight, female, Jewish, or their interests, like birdwatching, smoking, etc. The point is, each character has multiple unique aspects that help them to stand out among what could have potentially been an identical cast of young children.
Try It Out
If you’re writing a novel with multiple main characters, then grab a piece of paper, or your favorite note-taking app, and put each of their names as a heading. Now try to give each of them one or two unique characteristics.
That doesn’t mean that they can’t all have something in common. For example, they could all love D&D, but one of them could be obsessed with writing the adventures, and another could love to do voices, and another could always be quick to run into things without thinking, with the whole group suffering the consequences. With a little bit of effort, you can develop a wide variety of colorful, interesting, and above all, memorable characters for your novel.