One of the inevitable results of writing an ongoing series is that the cast of characters expands as the series continues. It’s also the reader expectation that most (or at least many) of these ongoing characters will make cameo appearances in each book. There are a couple of issues for writers that fall out of this, but let’s look at books first.
My Dragonfire series of paranormal romances is currently up to seven titles. (The eighth Dragonfire book, EMBER’S KISS, will be published in October.) Dragonfire features heroes who are dragon shape shifters and, in fact, in the Dragonfire world, all of the dragon shape shifters are male. They’re called the Pyr. The Pyr mate with human women and always have sons who develop their dragon shape shifter powers at puberty. Because Dragonfire is a paranormal romance series, each book features one dragon shape shifter and his meeting with the woman who can bear his son. Their meeting is marked by the firestorm - sparks fly between them until their match is consummated and they conceive that son. These romances have a lot of action and I have fun with the dragon fights (and yes, the love scenes too!)
So, there is an ongoing company of Pyr, some of whom have had their firestorms and some of whom have not. The ones who have had their firestorms have human partners and they also have children - sometimes more than the one conceived in the firestorm. See how the cast is growing? In addition, the Pyr have traditional enemies called the Slayers - these are dragon shifters who have turned bad. The Slayers continue from book to book, and have relationships with each other. Finally, because being Pyr is genetic and runs in the male line, there are family relationships and forebears for all of the Pyr.
But here’s another wrinkle. There is always one female dragon shifter in the Dragonfire world. She’s called the Wyvern and is supposed to have additional powers - like the gift of prophecy and the ability to take additional forms other than dragon and human. At the beginning of my Dragonfire series, the Wyvern was named Sophie. She was elusive and mysterious, and the male dragon shifters were pretty awed when they saw her. In book #3 (KISS OF FATE), though, Sophie died. (You’ll have to read the book to find out how and why.) The child conceived in that book was a girl, who was named Zoë. Her dad has believed from the beginning that she must be the next Wyvern and has been anxious for her to come into her powers to help the Pyr in their battle against the Slayers.
I realized finally that Zoë would come into her powers as Wyvern at puberty, just like the teenage guy Pyr come into their dragon shifting powers then. The idea of a teenager dealing with all of this change, while juggling school and friends and interest in hot guys, is like another fantasy. I could easily imagine what it would be like to be fifteen and have these incredible powers, powers that weren’t quite under control.
My paranormal YA series, The Dragon Diaries, is the result of this realization and a spin-off series from Dragonfire. The Dragon Diaries trilogy is set in the future (which is a whole lot like the present, but with better gadgets). The series begins with Zoë finally getting her period at fifteen and the resulting explosion of changes in her body and her life. She’s got more on her plate than most teenagers, but is supposed to keep her developing powers secret from her best friend. Never mind that the hottest guy on the planet turns up to mess with her mind, and apparently knows more about dragons and Wyverns than Zoë does. Dragons are supposed to be good at solving riddles - can Zoë figure out the mystery of her powers in time to save the Pyr from the evil plan of the Mages?
The cast of characters grows in this series to include Zoë’s human friends (and enemies) at school, as well as the Mages and apprentice Mages. Of course, the dragon shape shifters who are Zoë’s pals are all those babies born in the Dragonfire series - but they’re teenagers.
Finally, the Dragon Diaries involves the revelation that there have been many kinds of shifters in the world. The Mages are bent on destroying those that remain and Zoë encourages the surviving kinds to band together. Again, the cast grows, with cat shifters, werewolves, and Thunderbirds. We have glimpses of the networked relationships within each of those worlds, which expands the cast one more time.
How can an author manage all these characters?
1/ A series binder.
I have a huge binder. Each character has his or her own page in that binder, and it lists details like their colouring, their height and build, any references I’ve made to their past history, their appearance as a dragon, and any issues or habits that have been mentioned already in the book. I add in their relationships, family connections, the names of their mates and kids. I have a standardized spreadsheet that I continue to fill in for each character as he or she develops. This gives me a quick reference when I’m writing and I need to mention - for example - what tattoos Thorolf has.
I got the idea for this from the style sheets that copy editors create when editing books - but these are style sheets on steroids.
2/ A plan for each character.
Characters need to change or grow over time. I keep a separate folder with notes about each character, what his or her perspective is at first introduction and what it will be at the end. For most of the Pyr, the major change in their character arc occurs during their firestorm. There are others, though, who have an ongoing development, both before and after their firestorm. The introduction of darkfire into the Dragonfire story line prompted a number of these changes, and I’m still charting out how they all get resolved by the end of the series.
3/ Stage management.
I’ve written linked series for a long time, and often have had to confront the issue of many characters who could potentially play a role. What I tend to do is give the protaongist(s) the main focus, then choose several other characters to have larger roles. The subplot, for example, might feature two or three characters. Often, they are the characters who will star in the next book in the series.
My analogy is that of a play. When you watch a play with a large cast of characters, the lighting and costumes tell you which characters are most important. The protagonist might be wearing the only costume in a bright colour, for example, while the company is dressed in more muted neutrals. The protagonist gets the brightest spotlight, the longest time in the spotlight and the most lines. Ideally, the protagonist is the most active participant in the story. The secondary character(s) - again, often the ones involved in a subplot that directly contributes to the resolution of the conflict - have brighter costumes than the chorus, but not as elaborate as those of the stars. Similarly, the secondary characters have more lines than those in the company, but fewer lines than the protagonists. Their spotlights will either be less bright or last less time. The author can give order to a book in the same way that a director gives order to a play.
Another way to manage a large cast is to not have every single character make an appearance in every single installment of the story. Part of my purpose in introducing darkfire - which created dissent within the Pyr - was to cause divisions in their company so that every single one of them didn’t come to every single firestorm. Similarly, in the Dragon Diaries, I decided that the older teenagers would naturally gravitate to being together to excluding their younger siblings and younger dragon shifters. Boot camp, which is training for the young Pyr, is something they can attend only by invitation - of course, they all aspire to go. In the Dragon Diaries, only those young Pyr who are fifteen or older attend boot camp. This makes a smaller group of continuing characters, at least from the Pyr side of things.
5/ More Books.
A final way to manage all the detail and all the characters is to assign each one his or her own spotlight or book, and chance to tell his or her story. One of the things I really like about working with a huge cast like this - once I get them organized! - is the wide array of possibilities in creating new books within a series, or new spin-off series.
Do you like to read or write books with a large cast of characters? Do you like to read or write series of books that feature a continuing cast of characters? Why or why not?
Deborah Cooke has always been fascinated with dragons, although she has never understood why they have to be the bad guys. She has an honours degree in history, with a focus on medieval studies. She is an avid reader of medieval vernacular literature, fairy tales and fantasy novels, and has written over forty romance novels and novellas. She has also been published under the names Claire Cross and Claire Delacroix.
Deborah makes her home in Canada with her husband. When she isn't writing, she can be found knitting, sewing or hunting for vintage patterns.