Write Bites: Cast Size

I recently saw some writing advice which, paraphrased, was thus: If you introduce a minor character, that character must then do something relevant later. Keep your cast small. Chekov’s gun for people, basically.

I had not realized this was actual advice being handed out, and it’s a real head-scratcher for me. Often in my reviews and reading, I compare things going on to a stage play. As in, your book isn’t a stage play, so why are you being stingy with your cast and sets? You don’t have to build a whole new background when you move to a new location in a book, or hire a whole new extra to play the taxi driver. And obsessively keeping the cast and locations limited leads to quite a lot of convenient coincidences or just outright plot holes as single characters suddenly have to teleport all around the plot to fill disparate roles.

One of the most egregious examples of this came from a book with a secret rebellion group. One single character from this group somehow managed to be leader, propagandist, smuggler, and recruiter all in one, popping up in multiple locations all around the country whenever the plot needed “uh, someone from that group to do something.” Nothing would have been lost to have this character split into multiple, because each instance of this character’s appearance was unconnected to all other appearances. The only thing I can guess is that we were supposed to ‘get to know’ this character, care about them through sheer repetition, but that was hard to do when I was busy wondering how much time they must spend traveling in order to be so literally all over the place.

Perhaps a matter of personal preference, but I vastly prefer throw-away characters to this tactic of shoving many roles under the umbrella of one name. Having a character show up, do their job, and then scurry away to do other things off-page, I think, gives us a better sense of a wider world. A smuggler that shows up, smuggles, and then scurries away to the rest of her non-smuggling related life…well, at least tells us that there’s other things going on in the world. A smuggler who shows up, smuggles, and then pops up again and again and again whenever the protagonist needs a push and in whatever form that push needs to be…pretty much just exists to revolve around the protagonist’s story.

What do you prefer? Small cast or single-task characters?

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