Heroes and Collectives

How many central characters should a novel have? One or two? Three? Or…

Most novels have a hero or heroine, or in some cases, a pair of heroes or heroines. In creating what I hoped would be a new thriller series, I realised I’d gone a bit overboard in character-creation mode and for a while, hadn’t a clue what to do about it.

And it wasn’t the first time. Back in 2016, I wrote The Hounds of Hellerby Hall, the first book in my children’s series, The Christie McKinnon Adventures. Although I knew very well that my heroic pair, Christie McKinnon and her slightly less intelligent pal, Donal, were the main characters, as I wrote, lots of other characters seemed to be screaming out for attention, too. The result was that before I’d got even quarter of the way through, I suddenly had way too many characters. For a while I ummd and ahhd about whether to cut some of them out completely or just make them minor characters who only appeared in one scene, but try as I might, they kept popping back into the action. Eventually, I accepted them and got on with the story, recognising that although all these other folk were still minor characters, they were also vitally important to the story.

As it turned out, it wasn’t a big problem and my two heroes remained in charge of the action. However, when I started writing the aforementioned thriller series, it began to happen again. 

The Relic Black series currently stands at two books – Terminal Black and Crucial Black – with book three – Crucial Black – due out in a month or so. The first book began with a completely different title – Ariadne 7 – with a vague plot around the idea of an escort service that catered to a group of villains. Luckily, I recognised that the title made no sense and renamed the book after its central character and completely changed the plot in the process.

Then the trouble started.

By the time I reached the 30,000-word mark, I had so many characters I began to think I’d created a monster that would evade capture for the rest of time. I re-wrote chapters, rearranged everything, wrote new beginnings (several times) and still couldn’t get a handle on how to take it forward.

And then it hit me. I had created a story with an ensemble cast.

Once I realised this simple fact, the rest was easy. All I had to do was make sure the main character kept his head above the rising ensembling waters and everything would be fine.

The problem, of course, was how to keep the plot moving and not make it seem like I’d gone off at a tangent with each new chapter. With that in mind, I avoided traditional chapters and started the book from a point closer to what I thought would probably be the end. Then I moved the action to a week earlier and began to introduce the other characters who would all gradually converge towards a similar goal when everything would make sense. At least, I hoped that’s what would happen.

The book took seven years to write and what I ended up with is very different to my original idea. But having created this ensemble cast, the sensible thing would be to continue in this vein, a challenge that excites and horrifies me in equal measures. To misquote a popular song lyric, See that thing coming over the hill? It’s a monster.

NB A version of this post first appeared as a guest post on Reading Tonic.

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