Monday, May 5, 2014

So You Want to Write an Ensemble Cast

Happy Cinco de Mayo, Secret Lifers! (: In the spirit of parties and the number five, I've got five tips for writing a great ensemble cast for you.

I have this thing about ensemble casts. A lot of my projects feature teams, secret organizations, or groups of people working together for a common goal, and one of my biggest issues as a writer has been "how on earth do I get a number of people to work together without a) overwhelming the reader and b) actually helping people keep all these characters straight?"

Okay, let's do this.

1. Each character has a certain base set of skills.
If you, like me, enjoy RPGs and D&D, this will probably come naturally to you. Think of each of your characters as fitting into a certain class.

Using classes as an underlying way to sort characters is useful-- you can balance out skills more easily. There's the people who can take a lot of physical damage and then the more vulnerable, magical characters. The magician's spells hurt more than physical attacks (often) but magicians cannot take a lot of physical damage.  Perhaps it's most easy to see this working in a fantasy setting, but it can be applied to any group of characters.

As an example, there's this one military drama I love that takes place on a submarine. Maybe the people in the command room have some hand-to-hand combat training, but the sub's chief engineer is unlikely to be able to hold her own in a fight, even if she's the smartest person on the boat. Likewise, the ace mecha pilot might be able to accomplish his missions on the ground in record time, but he lacks the strategic foresight to always avoid falling into trouble.

One of the keys to getting the group to work logically together is having them cover each other's weak spots-- figure out ways for them to all balance each other out, with each person being useful. The flirty sniper isn't good at all with hand-to-hand combat, the brilliant strategist captain is actually terrible at fighting of any kind, and the mysterious lieutenant just lives through anything.

2. Ensemble casts are a system of interchangeable parts.
Sometimes it's not necessarily that someone has a certain skill-- a lot of people in the story could have that same skill-- it depends on how good the characters are. Lots of people can drive a car, but maybe there's only one person good enough in your heist story to be the getaway driver.

Likewise, in the submarine drama, it's not hard to find someone can set the submarine's course-- the lieutenant commander can do it, the XO can do it, the captain can do it. But, if the submarine has to evade missiles and be pushed to its operating capability, then the captain (who's designed the sub from scratch and knows it better than anyone) has to be one giving orders.

This also helps you avoid falling into the chosen one trope, if you're not going for that. If a lot of people can fight an enemy but your protag is just trained to be the best at it, or if there are a lot of tacticians but your main character is the most resourceful, then we're more inclined to cheer for them on their merits than on their mysterious powers.

3. Your main conflict is a ripple across character arcs.
Here is a kind of ugly picture that I derped up in mspaint to illustrate this point.
Okay, so the letters that are closest to the center of the ripple? Those people should be my main characters (this project had a lot of people running around it). I have my protag (D), the love interest/mentor (S), and the antagonist (J), right at the center. The conflict between them defines the book. The people at the center of the circle are the people whose lives change drastically based on this conflict (D becomes a coward, then re-learns how to be brave, always-honest S finds a reason to lie, D's best friend J finds a reason to hate him). Characters on the next ring out are ones that are more indirectly affected, and so on.

The closer you are to the center conflict, the more I need to see you change/evolve as a character across the story. The people on the outer ring may change a little, but for the most part, they're pretty constant-- they're the most minor of the characters. But on the four inner rings, each character changes in some way (the closer to the center, the larger the change) based on the main conflict.

4. Help your reader remember all these great people. 
One of my favorite tricks for helping keep characters straight is associating different letters with them. If all your characters start with the letter J, it will be much harder for a reader to keep them all straight, especially the minor ones.

Granted, if you have a truly huge cast of characters (think Game of Thrones size), then sure, you're going to run through the alphabet very fast. In cases like this, it's probably better to look at family or clan names, and trying to make those unique, then assigning unique letters within them. (Where I'd normally think, "oh that's that T-named character from before!" then I can think "oh that's T-whatever of House S--")

Unique names are cool, but keep in mind what will stand out and what will make your characters blend in. A lot of unusual names together makes more common names stick out (in a sea of Haven's, Pierce's, and Asa's, a Thomas stands out). Likewise, in an expensive preparatory school setting in the US, it's more likely that characters with names like Rohit and Yosuke will stand out and be more memorable than Ashley and Jax. However, if your story is set in Seoul, then a character named Rosalie sticks out more than In Hwa Lee.

5. Quirks win the day. 
What defines a character? Sometimes it's just as simple as being the guy who takes himself too seriously and acts snooty, or the specific way that a character opens a door and inexplicably stubs her ballet flat on things. If you can give us something specific, some human detail to associate with a character, something that they do different than anyone else, then we'll remember them more easily.

Good luck!

When Alex Yuschik isn't writing her next YA novel, she's working on someone else's as an intern at Entangled Publishing. She writes about lock picks, ghosts, the abandoned places in cities, and how not to strike bargains with stars. Between sneaking in time to game and rocking out to indie music, Alex spends the rest of her free time working towards her PhD in mathematics. You know, as one does.

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Friday, May 2, 2014

That Time I Met a Fellow Secret Lifer and CP: Farrah Penn

If you follow me on Instagram, then you probably saw the photos I shared from my trip to Los Angeles last weekend. This trip came about because of the awesome lineup the Pasadena Library put together for their first ever Teen Book Festival.

I knew I couldn't miss out on this wonderful opportunity, and immediately talked my critique partner Farrah Penn into attending the event with me. This was a big deal for us because we've been friends via Twitter as long as we've been critique partners. Of course, we text often and SnapChat almost as frequently, but we've never actually met in person.

So when April 26th finally came around, I packed up and hit the road around 2AM to make it in time for the event. I was super excited to meet Farrah IRL, and I couldn't wait to surprise her with an ARC of GATEWAY; a book she helped get published by reading it who-knows-how-many-times. Here we are shortly after I arrived in L.A.:

Yay!! How fun is that? I totally kept it a secret, which we all know is hard for me when I can't share things on Twitter. I got the ARCs that week and was dying to share them with the world. Keeping the secret was totally worth it, though. (Side note: If you don't already know, Farrah is also a fellow Secret Life of Writers blogger, as well as a fabulous writer of YA contemporary who's represented by the awesome Suzie Townsend from New Leaf Literary.)

Seriously. Farrah's support has been absolutely wonderful. I don't know what Gateway would be without her, and I don't even want to think about it. That's how much of an impact she's had on my writing, which I'm sure goes for all of us with critique partners. Not to mention that she's just an overall sweetheart. I greatly enjoyed our chats and wished I could have stayed a little longer.

In true critique partner fashion, Farrah couldn't let me leave without signing her copy, which I happily obliged:
P.S. Signing your own book for the first time is a pretty surreal experience. I sat there and thought about what to write for a good five minutes.

With all that being said, I keep hearing rumors that Farrah's gonna visit the weekend of my book launch. Let it be known, I'm holding her to it. haha Cheers!
Heather Marie is a YA writer who loves all things creepy. She enjoys writing horror/supernatural stories that make you question that feeling of someone watching over your shoulder. Heather spends most of her days reading and writing and plotting her next idea. When she's not in her writing cave, she enjoys watching creepy TV shows with her husband and picking apart plot holes in movies.

Her YA debut, THE GATEWAY THROUGH WHICH THEY CAME, releases August 25th, 2014 from Curiosity Quills.

You can find her on Twitter @:
And visit her website @: