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If you have a dozen good guys, but four of them are the protagonists and the other six are more in the background, it's not that hard to skew the pagetime of each character towards those that are more important to the plot.

But if all twelve characters are equally important (like one of those superhero unions or something), then I've found things seem to get difficult. Obviously the characters that are actors more than observers get more pagetime simply due to being more involved in the plot, but I still feel like the less-involved are being shafted a bit, especially as the characters I tend to favour wind up being used more often. So far the most common character has ~11% of the paragraphs while the least common two have ~4% each (with ~14% of the paragraphs being attributed to no one).

Is it reasonable at all to expect better distribution of spotlight? Aside from breaking the cast into subgroups and focusing on one group at a time (which is planned), is there a feasible way to divert subconscious bias? How many simultaneous protagonists is too much?

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Tell me - what's your format? Short story, novel, comic book? I can see this getting good answers, but pointing us to a specific format would probably help make answers most helpful and specific. –  Standback Mar 15 '12 at 4:40
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I'll third the format question. I really have a hard time seeing a novel with 12 equally important characters working. None come to mind with that many main characters, but maybe that's just cause it's late and I'm tired. Funnily enough, it's alot easier to image a graphic novel with that many, and certainly a web series. –  Patches Mar 16 '12 at 5:20
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Jeez, I just thought of something -- how many villains do you have to go with those heroes?? –  Patches Mar 16 '12 at 5:21
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A small piece of tangential-but-relevant advice--don't make yourself write something if you're not into it. Readers can tell, and there's probably a reason you felt that way in the first place. If you find yourself paying more attention to a few characters, it might be b/c they deserve it. Maybe try to find something that creates the same level of interest for you in the other characters? And if you can't muster it, then maybe you should let them fade into the background. –  RSid Mar 22 '12 at 21:00
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If you have a dozen good guys, but four of them are the protagonists and the other six are more in the background, two have magically vanished! ;) –  ggambett Aug 27 '12 at 21:28

4 Answers 4

From what I've experienced, you don't need to give everyone equal spotlight.

Take Star Wars for instance. Darth Vader has considerably less screen time and fewer lines than Han Solo or Luke Skywalker, but nevertheless he's an icon and one of the most memorable parts of the film. It isn't about duration: it's about quality. A well-crafted character can make their mark in a tenth of the time it takes for a lesser character.

Trust your subconscious bias, but don't let it seize control. Your subconscious is biased because there's a reason to be biased: some characters may be legitimately more interesting than others. Make sure you're being honest with yourself: do all your plot threads truly have equal importance? Don't try to squeeze something out of it if it isn't there, just because you wanted it to be there. Your story may need re-envisioning. But like I said, don't let the subconscious seize control, or next thing you know you'll be ignoring other parts of the story. That's a bad thing :) Balance your intuition with your intellect.

Last tip, look at how other writers did it. Stephen King is renowned for managing huge casts of characters simultaneously. Then there's Lord of the Rings. Or, watch an ensemble-style tv show or movie. The same techniques carry over. Lost and Heroes are good examples, as are Grey's Anatomy and a number of other medical shows which follow a large number of hospital workers. 12 Angry Men is a classic courthouse movie which follows a single conversation between 12 people: this may be one of the best examples I can offer. Just look at the time allotment they give to different characters, and think about how that time allotment is used, and why it was used that way, which means thinking about how that time slot contributes to the overall storyline. Nothing helps better than carefully soaking in the techniques of a more experienced author over time. Skill is never gained instantly.

Good luck!

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+1 for "It isn't about duration: it's about quality." –  Patches Mar 15 '12 at 17:56
    
+1 for exactly the same reason :D –  Tannalein Dec 22 '12 at 19:24

The other think to bear in mind is how often or regularly the characters appear. It is quite possible to build a character with very little space, if every few pages, they make some significant impact on the plot. It is quite a good way of forming a stealth character, who only expresses themselves fully towards the end of the story.

But quality of page-time is more important than quantity. Just like with real people, those who are always at the front, making the waves, are not necessarily the most significant or important. Those who just contribute a small but critical part can be the stars. Make the pagetime fit the characters, and they will shine.

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My personal experience is that stories are more interesting when told from the viewpoint of just one or two characters. I have read books where it starts out as if all characters are equally important, but then subtly changes as you go through so that on character in particular is the main one. I don't know if this was intended or if it naturally happened as the book was written. I would say go with the flow and what comes naturally when you are writing, the bias there toward certain characters serves a purpose. :)

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I really do agree with that first statement, as a general rule. I find precious few authors can make multiple perspectives interesting at once, and it really irritates me to jump around and have to leave one person when I really want to know what was about to happen with them. –  Aerovistae Aug 24 '12 at 18:20
    
@Aerovistae - that's one of the points of multiple POV-s: to keep the tension up and keep the reader engaged. You kept reading through the other characters to get to the one you were interested in, didn't you? It's like saying you're irritated because the last episode of your favorite show ended with a cliffhanger. Sure, it's irritating to have to wait for the next episode, but the chances are that much greater that you will watch the next episode. –  Tannalein Dec 22 '12 at 19:33
    
Ah, but if the other characters are boring, I skip them. –  Aerovistae Dec 22 '12 at 21:20

So... I'm working on re-writing a book right now (well, in fairness, by "right now" I mean "I put it down for a year and am just getting back into the revision) which is being told from the POV of 4 different chraacters. It's also currently more than 100,000 words long and I know that publishers have flat-out told me that this is way too long for something in its genre, so changes will have to be made. Still, 4 POVs, 100k words, that's about the size of, I think points of view changes.

One thing I think a lot of beginning writers get hung up on is this idea of character being "oh man, I have to find a way to include a backstory here" or "I need some kick ass descriptions". This is false, I think. Character is action. I'll repeat that in bold type because it's important. Character is action. People aren't going to remember your character because you wrote a couple paragraphs about how he fought in the battle of Zentronobia with just a phaser and a Model III lightshield. They're going to remember that thing he did to the other people in the story.

This is not to say you should skimp on backstory at all. Write it all out by all means. One thing I did with this latest book is I put together character bios for all the mains: a quick summary of their strengths, weaknesses, and physical description, but also a description of their upbrining, demeaner, work and social lives, and so on. None of this is in the actual writing, although obviously I draw on it quite heavily. If this sounds like "overwriting" and committing too many words to something that's not going to be in a final draft, consider this: chances are, nothing you put down into that first draft is going to make it into the final draft anyway.

This solves two separate but related issues:

  1. You now have a character with information you can refer to when you're writing the story. Of course, you can always change that information down the line as you realize more about who the character is and so on, but the important thing is that you've got a vivid picture of this character in your head.

  2. You will feel far, far less compelled to write in backstory which only needed to be there for your own edification because, well, you've already written that backstory. You'll come to a point where you say "how much does my audience need to know about this person" and you'll be able to answer that concisely.

I've heard this called the "iceberg" method of storytelling, although TBH I don't think that a 1k-2k word character bio quite counts as an "iceberg" when you're writing 60,000 or more words of narrative about said character. It's more like the "ocean liner" method; there's a lot to be seen above the waterline but there's a little bi below as well.

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