Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Too many characters in a scene? Mix and match!

If you write stories with multiple characters, chances are you've run into scenes like this:

Rudy ran up the stairs. Then Claire ran up the stairs. Then Vanessa ran up the stairs. Then Cliff ran up the stairs. Theo was sitting on his bed with his headphones on. Vanessa yelled at him, but he didn't hear. So, Rudy went over and stomped on his foot.

"Don't step on your brother's foot," Clair said.

"Well, he wouldn't listen to Vanessa," Rudy said.

Theo was wailing and holding his foot. Cliff ran downstairs to get his medical bag from his office. Vanessa was laughing, but Claire made Rudy apologize. Then, everything was okay.

No matter how well-described each character is, a scene like this can sometimes come out looking like a mess. I should know. I was just trying to juggle three characters in my novel, and I ended up keeping them in separate rooms as often as possible to avoid having to deal with it.

Now, I realize that with some organization, a scene with several different characters can turn into a masterpiece. Just remember that you can mix and match.

Many times in a scene like this, characters are performing similar actions. You can group those characters and their actions together to keep from having to describe each one individually.
Instead of, Rudy ran up the stairs. Then Claire ran up the stairs. Then Vanessa ran up the stairs. Then Cliff ran up the stairs, you could write, They all ran up the stairs.

This doesn't have to stop with action. You can lump emotions together, or interactions, thereby creating microcosms inside the larger scene.

You can also mix things up to simplify them. Although this might seem a little counterintuitive at first, remember that as writers we can easily jump through time and space if it helps make our story stronger. In the scene above, I wrote out each character's actions in chronological order. But, there are other ways to write the same scene.

For example: They all ran up the stairs to where Theo was listening to his headphones. But, a moment later, Cliff ran back down to get his medical bag from his office. The children had gotten into a fight: Vanessa yelling, Rudy stepping on Theo's foot, Theo crying, until finally Claire intervened.

Here, I moved the middle events to the end of the scene so that I could unite the action of running up and down the stairs. The list of kids and their actions becomes even more hectic when they are grouped together, perhaps. But now, readers don't feel like they have to try as hard to remember who is whom. The kids become a single entity contributing to the chaos.

Another possibility might be: The kids were at it again. Theo was listening to his headphones. Vanessa and Rudy went up to pick a fight. And so, it was Claire who had to intervene while Cliff went to get his medical bag from his office.

This time, the scene is organized into more of a two-sided conflict, the kids versus the adults, instead of the five-sided conflict I originally presented. Even though there are just as many names, readers are able to keep them more or less organized in their minds.

So, if you're overwhelmed by having to juggle multiple characters in a single scene, keep in mind that you can mix and match them to make the scene more organized and more dynamic.

Question of the day:
Have you ever had to deal with a multi-character scene? What problems did you face? How did you fix them?

Note added later: See Jabez's great tip in the comments as well.


  1. The first example you wrote definitely made my head hurt, but the following examples clarified the scene. Grouping the action and emotions together makes sense especially if the scene itself isn't essential to a central plot. As a reader, I'd want a scene like that to be "quick and easy" (in other words summarized).

    I don't often have more than three characters in a scene at one time and really haven't had too much issues with clarifying who's doing what and who's who.

  2. First - love, love, love The Cosby Show. It always makes me laugh.

    Second - YES! The project I'm hoping to query this year deals with five friends. The scenes normally have all five of them together. Yes, it's a nightmare at times. Other projects I've written since then, while there are multiple characters, I do more one on one scenes then group scenes in order to keep things a bit more simple.

    This is a great post with tons of good advice that will come in handy during the revision stage of the group scenes. Thanks.


  3. Great post. My new WIP has many more characters than my last and I am running into a lot of multiple person scenes where I feel like I’m overwhelming the reader. I’ll refer back to this post as I write. Thanks!

  4. Great post. It's interesting that you bring this up because I've seen published authors not handle it as well as you.

    Lynnette Labelle

  5. Awesome post, Davin. And like Scott said, the Cosby Show was great.

    I have not had the opportunity to deal with this many characters at once, and it's probably a good thing. Your first example is probably how I would have messed my way through it. I like how you improve with each adjustment though. When is your book going to be out, dangit? If you write this well, we all need to be reading it. :D

  6. Great techniques, thanks! I think I tend to separate characters unnecessarily just to make it easier for myself. I need to rewrite a scene in which my MC meets a group at a pub, and I think your mix/match techniques will help. In the original, two of the characters kind of fade out--not speaking or acting beyond the initial introduction. Bad cheat! Must fix.

  7. For the most part, I've lucked out in that I can find reasons to shrink the numbers of characters in any given scene.

    In cases where there's four to five people in the same scene, it takes a lot of juggling to get them to move in the right places. There's a scene in the MS where five characters all have to talk at some point. Thankfully, I moved through it in a hopefully logical order to make things easier. And the MC ends up tying everything together through the way she talks.

  8. I have many multi-character scenes in my works. The most difficult one I've done is that scene at the end of Monarch with everybody in the library. Oh my goodness...that took forever to get right.

    What I ended up doing was clumping people together. What made it even harder, though, was that I was switching chapters in that scene - between POVs. So that complicated it even more. There were FIFTEEN characters in all. What a nightmare!

    I like this post - it shows how a complicated scene can be made simple. Of course, the process might not be simple, but the outcome is lovely if it's done right.

  9. Crimey, Today's post seems really obvious to me now, but I had difficulty with it for a long time. I hope this can help some people. I'm a huge fan of Tolstoy, so I've always wanted to be able to write party scenes with dozens of people in them.

    Scott, I was wondering if anyone would pick up on the cast of characters. :) I'm glad this is helpful to you. I know you write about a bunch of characters at's one of the reasons I'm looking forward to reading your book. I love stuff like that.

    Jennifer, Hope this is helpful. Like I said, with my novel, I ended up keeping my characters separated when I could. So, that's another option. But, as writers, we should probably be able to do both.

    Lynnette, Can you please say this so all of the publishing house editors you know? I've got a book I'd like to sell them. :)

    Eric, You should give it a shot when the opportunity arises. Create the opportunity and see how is goes! As for my book--believe me, I'm working on getting it out there.

    Laurel, Something I didn't mention in this post, actually, is that I think it's perfectly normal to have characters fade out in a group scene. Look at real life. Often times groups self-organize, with some people dominating and others fading back. I think that's totally legit.

    Matthew, I think logic is the key guiding tool when you get into a complicated scene like this. Of course we eventually want our writing to be original and creative, but logic and clarity should come first, in my opinion.

    Michelle, yes, it can be a ton of hard work. I think that's why I avoided it a lot of times. Now, I see it as a fun challenge, and I find myself including more characters in my stories because I like to try and solve puzzles like this.

  10. I think the important thing is to spot the clunkiness or hard-to-followness, and then to craft a remedy in light of the purpose of the scene.

    Davin, in your example, you changed dramatic scene (including dialogue) to narrative summary, presumably because the important thing isn't what the kids are saying/doing to each other, but the general fact of family chaos and the hectic day Cliff and Claire are having.

    But sometimes other fixes are better/necessary. In my WIP, I've got a scene where the main character finds himself amid a group of townspeople who all know each other but have never met him. They pepper him with questions and even start arguing with each other a little. But my first draft was very cumbersome, because my MC was the viewpoint character, and he didn't know the names of the people interrogating him. So I had a lot of "the first guy said this" and "the man in the brown shirt said that." Not good.

    I thought it important to include the actual questions, to show the townspeople's attitudes and preconceptions about my MC, but it was confusing to have "X said this; Y said that; Z said this; then X said this too," and with descriptions instead of names. I decided what was important wasn't who asked what questions, but rather the substance of what was being asked and the MC's feeling of being assaulted by all these questions. So I have him enter the room and the people cluster around him. Then I just put in the questions and statements, without attribution. So you just have a string of dialogue, and it conveys the sense of all these people asking a bunch of questions, and even having conversations with each other about the MC in front of him. The attributions weren't necessary, and taking them out streamlined the scene considerably.

  11. Jabez, That is a fantastic point, thank you for taking the time to explain it so beautifully. I have a scene like that in my last novel as well. A man comes out of a temple after his son has gotten into a fist fight. He has to confront a crowd of people all asking him questions, and I used this same technique of just firing the questions with no attribution.

  12. Jabez, I'm going to add a note on your tip in the actual post so that other people will read your comment as well.

  13. Thanks Davin. Also, I think it bears mentioning that we shouldn't feel bad about having problems like this in the first draft. Often I'll write scenes clunkily like this because I want to make sure that I've got all the action and who is doing what straight in my head while I'm writing. Then later I go back and make it clear for the reader. It's what revision is for.

  14. Jabez: I like your comment about it being okay in a first draft. For me, the most important thing is to get everything down first, and clunky scenes are fine in that respect.

  15. I was going to make a comment that's similar to Jabez's, that a good solution is to focus on the purpose of the scene, and to follow that focus. I have a scene in the last chapter of "Cocke & Bull" where the POV character walks into an office where over a dozen other men are congregated. He has dialogue, two other men have dialogue that's attributed to them, and other men who are part of the crowd have lines but they don't get attribution aside from "someone said." What is said is important, but who says it (aside from the speaker being a member of a certain clique) isn't. The focus stays on the POV character, because what he's doing is the point of the scene.

    People like Tolstoy and D.H. Lawrence write crowd scenes, and it seems that what they've done is to divide the crowd into smaller groups and deal with each group separately, even if moving back and forth between the groups.

  16. Luckily for me, nothing I ever write is clunky.

  17. I am really struggling w/ this right now in my WIP because I have a group of girls. I hate to write, "Jade this and Jade that..." but using 'she' can be confusing when there are two girls there.

    In my last work, I had a boy and girl in most scenes as the two main characters so it was less of a problem.

    I guess being aware of it is half the battle. I just hope it comes out like I intend and not a jumbled mess of pronouns and names.

  18. The biggest problem with multi-character scenes is that he/him, she/her terminology. For instance: Josh needed new paperclips and asked Ken where to find them. He hollared ove to Kim, who told him he could have one of her spares.

    Or in a room where most of the characters are unnammed but there's a lot of interraction.
    Sometimes the actions or narrative gets crowded with too many names, and its still messy. I try to focus on only one or two characters if possible.

    Doesn't always work, and sometimes I have to just re-write the scene using different circumstances.

    Good food for thought on my lunch break though. Thanks Davin.


  19. Yep. Good points. I have some scenes like this and it does take extra efforts to make them not be obnoxious--I mean, to make them work well.

  20. Sometimes, though, you want the effect of a confusion of names. I'm thinking of the party at Bilbo's house in "The Hobbit," with all the dwarves and their rhyming groups of names and the way Bilbo was overwhelmed. Even so, JRRT managed the crowd. Also, I may only be remembering how I felt about the scene, and not at all how it was written.

  21. Great post! This is something I'm working on right now. My WIP is a story about a large family, and I'm trying to capture the feel of dinner conversation. I'll definitely revisit it with these in mind.

  22. I love readding, and thanks for your artical. ........................................

  23. Late to the party, but I found the post and comments interesting. That he/she thing really does get tricky with a lot of people in the scene.

  24. Cosby show. We use to watch that show a lot.

    Group scenes make my head and my stomach hurt. And the one main problem is, I am afraid to even attempt stuff like that with my writing. YIKES.

    I know one thing, I love this advice Davin. And I know I will make use of it in this next book I am writing. Uh, copy paste is a good invention. =)

    And Davin your comment on my blog on Wednesday, just made me feel so wonderful. Thank you, thank you my friend. For EVERYTHING! =)


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