Excuse me a moment while I scream. YAAAAAAAARRGGHHH!11!!!!ONEone. Okay, that’s better. With that out of the way, let’s talk about writing large groups of characters, a topic of much hair pulling and flustered frustration.
There are a few basic ways to handle more than, say, four characters in a scene. The easiest is to simply not do it. This is normally my preferred solution because I like to keep things focused on specific characters, pairings, or small events.
But there are always exceptions, and I do occasionally bite the bullet and write anything up to eight characters. Or even ten to twelve in very rare situations. So let’s go over some of the ways I handle this when necessary.
Split the Group for the Whole Chapter/Scene:
Potentially the easiest option for a large group, simply split it into two or three smaller, more manageable groups. For example, I have a group of eight characters and a part of my story demands that all eight characters be taken on a special trip/event together. So I split them into two groups: Group A, the important group, and Group B, the less important group.
Group A has the four characters this part (chapter, scene, whatever) mostly focuses on. Group B has the more incidental, background characters. By determining which were most important to this part of the work, I can easily focus on them while still keeping the others around for cross-group dialogue and events, without confusing matters by trying to have eight characters talking in one scene.
Alternate the Point of View:
A variation of the above split the group method. This one is similar, but you don’t place any of them into the background in less important roles. Instead, simply focus on one particular group or pairing or whatever subset is important to a particular scene. This method is helpful for large groups who aren’t necessarily all involved in a single scene at once.
In one instance you might have three characters talking out of a group of ten, so focus on them. Another scene might include five of those ten, so again keep the point of view firmly on them. Avoid jumping back and forth to different groups and points of view too often in the same scene, it’s confusing for both you and your readers.
This is a tricky one to handle, but worth it if you can pull it off. Instead of a static scene where your characters are sitting around and chatting, include some action to break things up. Have the characters involved in a larger event requiring them to move about in groups or otherwise perform various actions.
An example might be a large group preparing food for a big event, moving around each other in a kitchen and cooking, cutting, or otherwise engaging in the act of food prep. Effectively this is just a variation of the alternating viewpoints method above, but adding action to the mix to keep things interesting. Just be sure you make it clear what’s going on, too much movement and action can be confusing and difficult to describe.
Plot the Group’s Positions:
This is one I generally don’t use all that much because frankly it’s a royal pain in the buns to keep track of everything and everyone. I prefer the above methods to keep things simple. But this method has its place, so here we go. All you do is… plot each character’s position in the group. Just that. It sounds simpler than it tends to end up being, however.
Using the same example of eight characters, let’s have them all seated around a campfire in a rough circle. Draw the circle on a piece of paper—or use editing software such as Photoshop or GIMP, whatever you’re comfy with—and number each character.
Use this to keep track of who’s speaking, who’s getting too much dialogue, who’s getting too little, and so on. It’s also helpful, at least in this example, to have characters who will be speaking to each other a lot sit opposite to avoid having them turn to talk too much.
Pick Out the Group Leaders:
Another method for handling large groups is to pick out the characters who lead events and focus everything on them. Say you’ve got a group of fifteen characters in a scene. Pick out the five most important and convey everything through them rather than attempting to give everyone in the group their time in the spotlight.
For example, a camp scene which will involve a lot of setting up of tents, cooking, equipment, and so on. Pick out the leader types and use them as your point of view characters, even if the rest of the characters are important to the rest of the story. This is basically a smaller-scale, more controlled version of the above including action method. First-person viewpoint—sometimes known as Deep PoV—is especially useful for this one.
There are various ways to make writing large groups easier, these are just a few of the ones I’ve used and found handy. Sometimes it’s not feasible to reduce a large group down to more manageable chunks, but most of the time it shouldn’t be that difficult. Experiment with different methods and figure out what works best for a given scene, and never be afraid to try something new.