Large Character Casts: How to Put your Characters Temporarily Elsewhere

18 Hacks for Managing a Large Cast of Characters

Do you ever have scenes with 6+ people and you can’t seem to juggle them all? Sometimes I have several characters in the same fictional room, but the scene is short enough that I just can’t make them all important. They’re only there because, well, where else would they be? If my characters all follow the action, won’t they all always be in the same spot?

Or do you ever want to get 2-3 characters in a scene together for some quality relationship development, but that means sending the other characters elsewhere? Maybe it started as a group meeting, but you need some kind of reasonable excuse to get most of them to leave.

For those of us who write novels with large character casts, it gets to be a problem.

I’ve compiled a list of “off-screen” things the various members of your large character casts can be doing, for any time you need them to be temporarily somewhere else.

With this list comes with a few caveats:

Warning #1

If you find yourself always sending the same character somewhere else to a point where that character never actually gets much page time, are you sure you actually need that character in your novel?

Don’t use this an excuse to keep dead weight characters that are 100% unnecessary to your plot, but your heart can’t bear to cut. Either draw them back into the plot as a necessary element, or get rid of them.

Warning #2

This is only for temporarily getting rid of someone—meaning for a short amount of time, and infrequently.

It starts to feel weird if your character always happens to be taking their nap when something happens, and if you’re not careful, it’ll come off as lazy writing. Use this kind of thing sparingly.

Warning #3

Sometimes, you’ll need to have a result to their temporary absence. For example, if you say they’re off spying on the bad guy, occasionally they need to come back with a tidbit of info.

Not all of their missions will be a success, but again, it’ll start to feel fake if there’s no point to the spying.

READ MORE: Shaping your Character’s Internal Motivations

And now to the list!

There are two sections to it, depending on if your character to be doing something actively plot-related and useful while they’re away, or if you want them to stay uninvolved. Both have their uses depending on the situation.

Most of these choices do have more of a genre-fiction twist, but I’m sure all you realistic fiction writers can find a few points for inspiration. 🙂

Active Ways to Manage your Cast:

  1. Captured by the enemy
  2. Fighting in a different area
  3. Guarding a captured enemy
  4. Protecting someone in potential danger
  5. Researching the problem
  6. Spying/recon
  7. Training to fight
  8. Studying something important and plot-related
  9. Watching someone suspicious
  10. With another character (off-screen relationship building)
  11. Lost, but trying to find the battle

Passive Ways to Manage your Cast:

  1. At school, work, or another responsibility
  2. Doing a hobby
  3. Hunting for food
  4. Injured/sick/in the hospital
  5. On vacation
  6. Out of the loop (no one told them about the meeting, etc)
  7. Sleeping

The passive list could be incredibly longer, but I tried to list enough for you to get the idea. Whatever you pick, make sure it makes sense in your plot and setting, and like I warned before, don’t use this as an excuse to hold onto dead weight characters. Your characters should all still be plot-relevant!! 

Working this kind of downtime into your novel isn’t bad, since it can take up the necessary but boring actions that your story needs. Someone learning how to fight, for example, won’t learn everything in a week.

By occasionally putting them “off-screen” to train, you’re further convincing us that he or she has trained enough to pull off a future scene where they hold their own in battle.

READ MORE: The 5 Features that Make Up a Dynamic Character

It’ll also give a sense that other characters are working in the background and getting things done, even if your protagonist or narrator isn’t always there to see it, which is realistic, of course. It’s not like everyone else freezes in place the moment your protag isn’t around.

It is completely possible to have large character casts and still balance all your people nicely!

Am I the only one who has this problem, or have you found yourself struggling to handle a dozen characters all in the same scene? How do you usually deal with it?

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