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.