Most novels have a few viewpoint characters and maybe a couple of dozen other characters, set in one or several locations.
But what if you’re writing a novel with hundreds of characters in many dozen locations? How is your reader going to keep track of it all?
That is what I call “Fiction on a Big Stage.” It’s not for the faint-hearted.
Recently, I reread Tom Clancy’s epic novel of a putative World War III, Red Storm Rising. I got a cheap copy on BookBub and made the mistake of reading the first chapter. Four days later, I came up for air. The book was written about forty years ago, but it still feels oddly relevant. Ukraine is now on the opposite side, and there is no more East Germany, but a whole lot of the story feels very today.
Red Storm Rising takes place on a really large stage—the US, the Atlantic, Europe, and the Soviet Union (the book was written when there still was a Soviet Union). Some of the viewpoint characters are: a Muslim terrorist, a US intelligence analyst, a Russian member of the Politburo, a US sub captain, a tank driver in Germany, an American meteorologist in Iceland, the captain of a US Navy boat, a Russian general, the pilot of a US stealth bomber, and more. And each of these has a network of several named characters around him, along with dozens or hundreds or thousands of folks with no names.
And yet it’s not that hard to follow the story. How does Clancy pull this off? There are two specific techniques Clancy uses to help you remember it all:
- The lead characters are tightly connected.
- The lead characters are highly mobile.
A Small Network of Lead Characters
The American military officers mostly all know each other. At the beginning of the story, several of them actually get together. When WWIII kicks off, they all go their separate ways, but they stay in communication.
How does this help? It reduces the number of characters. Instead of each lead character having a separate network of people to interact with, they have networks that overlap. So the same people keep popping up.
On the Soviet side, the Politburo man’s son is assigned as an aide to the Russian general, and this son serves as a link to connect them.
Highly Mobile Lead Characters
On the Allied side, the US intelligence analyst gets flown out to Europe to serve on an aircraft carrier. When that gets hammered in an early battle, he gets moved to the UK, where he jumps into action elsewhere. Wherever he goes, you can be pretty sure there’s going to be a serious naval battle that he will observe.
In Iceland, the meteorologist escapes into the wild when the base at Keflavik is overrun by a Soviet invasion. He teams up with a few other military guys and eventually with an Icelandic woman, and the group gets around to every place there’s a battle. If there’s any military action in Iceland, they’re on site. Since the Soviet battle plan “Operation Polar Glory” uses Iceland as its key element, this puts the reader right at the strategic center of the war.
On the Soviet side, the Russian general and the Politburo man are the two most competent men in the nation. If there’s a battle to be won, the general is there. If there’s scheming to be done against the corrupt Politburo, the relatively good-guy Politburo man is on the scene. If communication needs to happen between the Politburo and the front, the Politburo man’s son is right there on the job.
So Clancy’s method is to choose a dozen or so viewpoint characters and work them unnaturally hard, so that they see all the action. This is very hard to pull off, but Clancy does it about as well as anyone can.
If you look at other novels set on a large stage, such as The Lord of the Rings, or the Harry Potter series, you’ll see these same methods being used. Because they work.
Fiction on a Smaller Stage
What does this have to do with you? If you’re a typical novelist, you’re writing on a much smaller stage. So what can you learn from Tom Clancy?
- Network your lead characters
- Keep your lead characters moving
Networking your lead characters means that you make sure “everybody knows everybody”—as much as that’s feasible. Sometimes it isn’t, but if you can arrange early on for some convenient relationships between lead characters, do so.
What does this achieve? It reduces the number of secondary characters. If your lead characters all know each other, they don’t need go-betweens. They don’t need introductions. They can interact with each other directly.
Keeping your lead characters moving means doing all in your power to get them on stage at every opportunity. If they have to hop on a supersonic jet, or take a broom, or walk the Paths of the Dead, then make sure that’s an option in your storyworld.
What does this achieve? It reduces the number of lead characters. If you want to show action, you need a viewpoint character on stage to see it and experience it. Having mobile lead characters means that a smaller number of them can see all the action.
None of This Happens by Chance
Networking your characters doesn’t happen by chance. Mobility doesn’t happen by chance. These things happen because you intentionally make them happen.
If you’re a Seat-Of-The-Pants writer, you make this happen by having great instincts or by careful rewriting after your first draft is done. Or both.
If you plan your novels in advance, either by using the Snowflake Method or by some other planning technique, you make it happen by knowing up front that you’re going to need to make it happen. And if necessary, you may need to rewrite afterward to make it better. Because no matter how well you plan your novel, it’s going to come out on the page different than you planned.