A Session with Cara Sue Achterberg
None of us goes through life alone. I’ve always loved stories that focus on friendship. Families are great – plenty of potential there for conflict and pain and embarrassing situations. But friends – that’s rich. They’re a chosen family.
Writing a story that features an ensemble cast can be tricky. When two or more characters share the limelight of the story things can get complicated easily for both the writer and the reader.
Let’s start with the obvious: how do readers keep all the characters straight? Sure, it might be simple if one is a blind, stuttering old man, another is a bombshell straight from the pages of Playboy magazine, and the third is a one-legged dwarf. But what if the characters are like most friends – pretty similar in many ways?
You have to be sure the reader doesn’t get them mixed up. My novel, Girls’ Weekend features three women who are fast friends. They have lots in common – they’re forty-ish moms, educated, and married to husbands for long enough that the shine has worn off. So, they’re pretty similar. My challenge was to create characters who were similar but clearly different.
How can you make your ensemble characters distinctive?
1. Use distinctive names. The first thing a writer usually does is name a character. I had three great names for the three women in my book, but my initial beta readers kept getting two mixed up. In my mind, these two were very different women. Why were they so confusing? It took me much longer than it should have to realize that their names were too similar. They were both one syllable names – Meg and Grace. And to make matters worse, Meg wrestles with her faith. Aha, I thought, Grace has to go. So I changed her name to Dani and, voila, problem mostly solved.
2. Create defining features. Changing names helped immensely, but I still had to define my characters more clearly. I went back to my original character sheets – the lists and interviews I’d worked through on each character. They had plenty of quirks and opinions that never made it to the page but informed the way I wrote them. One of my characters, Meg, loved crossword puzzles. Her obsession was similar to my own with the daily Sudoku puzzle in the morning paper. I pulled up a crossword app on my phone and started working through puzzles, writing down questions and answers. Then I peppered them throughout Meg’s scenes. She wondered about them to herself, asked her friends for help with tricky questions, even enlisted the help of strangers.
Meg pulled out the crossword puzzle from the Herald. She’d just get her puzzle out of the way and then it wouldn’t hang over her all day. She sighed, it was a tough one. Saturdays’ usually were.
“Do you do those puzzles every day?” asked Charlotte.
Meg nodded. “It’s my therapy.”
“I tried one once; it was impossible.”
“There are tricks to it and clues inside the clues.”
“Way over my head.”
“You could do them if you wanted to. Anyway, it keeps my mind busy.”
“You are the busiest person I know. Maybe instead of crosswords you should do yoga. Maybe your mind needs a break.”
“Maybe,” said Meg as she tried to think of a classic 1986 sports movie that started with h. Peter was always helpful with the sports clues. Hoosiers. That fit.
3. Use consistent language. Every person has their own way of speaking. Some of us talk fast, use more slang, or swear on occasion. Others are more thoughtful, careful. How do each of your characters speak? I can hear my characters in my head. When I read the dialogue out loud I use their voices. The dogs have grown used to it and assume I’m talking to them. They definitely came to prefer Meg’s voice over Charlotte’s as I wrote Girls’ Weekend. Friends – good friends – typically have a language all their own. There’s a comfort level there that allows them to say things they can’t say to others.
How do you find balance between multiple main characters? The story will become clunky if you tell the same scene again and again from the perspective of different narrators. If the story’s main characters are truly an ensemble, there needs to be equal opportunity to get a word in.
4. Choose the best narrator. When writing an ensemble cast, you have to figure out who has the best angle on any particular scene. This requires that, if you are writing in first person, you change narrators periodically. If you’re writing in third person, as I did in Girls’ Weekend, you switch angles. When writing in third person limited, you’re telling the story from the vantage point of a singular character. I liked to envision a narrator perched on a character’s shoulder. That narrator may step inside the head of that character briefly, but mostly he tells the story as that character sees it. In writing an ensemble where each character is equally important, it’s necessary to share all their viewpoints. Otherwise, it’s one character’s story, which is fine, if that’s what you’re going after.
In this scene from Girls’ Weekend, Dani is the narrator even though Charlotte is the focus. I originally wrote it from Charlotte’s view, but then realized the shock of what was happening was better written from Dani’s view. Charlotte wasn’t aware, or was choosing not to be aware, of the implications of her actions. In this scene, she’s toying with having an affair. It’s the first her friends see of it, but obviously Charlotte is already in pretty deep.
Dani noticed Charlotte watching the singer as he finished his set. As he put down his guitar and turned to acknowledge the scant applause from the partially filled deck, Charlotte climbed up on the railing behind her and raised her beer to him. He smiled at her and Dani thought she saw him wink.
“Charlotte, what have you not been telling us?” demanded Dani.
Charlotte sat back down and shrugged. “I had lunch with Martin yesterday.”
“What?” shrieked Meg and Dani.
“Just lunch. I ran into him and he bought me lunch.” Charlotte’s guilty smile gave her away.
“Are you nuts? What’s going on with this guy?” asked Dani.
“Relax, it was only lunch . . . and coffee that morning,” she laughed.
“You are nuts! I realize you and Brett are going through some stuff, but this is crazy. He’s a real person.” Dani pointed at Martin. “What are you getting yourself into?”
“Nothing I can’t handle. I don’t need the scolding, Dani. I’m not asking you to keep any secrets here.”
Dani looked at Meg to back her up, but she only shrugged. Dani glared at her and Meg started to say something, but then took a drink of her beer instead.
“What?” asked Charlotte, looking at Meg.
“I didn’t say anything,” said Meg.
“That’s just it. I didn’t bring you guys here so you could judge me. I thought this would be a fun night out for us.”
“So we’re not here to see the Irish guy?” asked Dani.
“I like his music,” said Charlotte, shrugging.
“And?” prompted Dani.
“We’re friends. That’s it.”
Dani rolled her eyes. The forced casualness of Charlotte’s tone gave away much more than the looks she kept shooting at Martin.
5. Be clear who’s narrating. Having multiple main characters who are telling the story, can easily cause confusion on the part of the reader. It must be clear who is speaking. You can do this through distinctly drawn characters with distinct voices. Or you can cheat, as I do in Girls’ Weekend, and simply name each scene with the character who will be narrating. Find a way to make it clear to your reader who is narrating so it doesn’t lead to frustration on the part of the reader.
Exercise 1 Create an ensemble cast for a story you might like to write. How are the characters different? Why are they connected? Name each character’s defining features.
Exercise 2 Write a scene involving all of your characters in either first or third person. Now re-write that scene from the vantage point of each character. Notice what changes when you switch perspectives.
About the Author…
Cara Sue Achterberg is a writer and blogger who lives in New Freedom, PA with her family and an embarrassing number of animals. Her first novel, I’m Not Her, was a national bestseller. Cara’s nonfiction book, Live Intentionally, is a guide to the organic life filled with ideas, recipes, and inspiration for living a more intentional life. Cara is a prolific blogger, occasional cowgirl, and busy mom whose essays and articles have been published in numerous anthologies, magazines, and websites. Links to her blogs, news about upcoming publications, and pictures of her foster dogs can be found at CaraWrites.com.