Multiple Character Arcs, are you frustrated?

Got a lot of characters? Need to weave them? Having trouble? I’ve struggled with this since, uhm, forever…

Do we write short stories for each character? Divide perspectives by chapters? Sections? Write only in third person??? I’ve been giving my fingers a workout trying to find some good blogs/chapters/articles on strategies for weaving multiple character arcs and I’m not coming up with much.

The only thing I can think to do is study the work of the authors who are already doing it so well, and they are out there.

Circus in Winter, Pure, The Sweethereafter

  1. Cathy Day’s Circus in Winter. This book is a “novel in stories.” It’s a format I was unfamiliar with before reading this book, but after a couple of stories, I started grasping what was happening structurally, and each story hooked me. In the end, the reader has enough information to build this world chronologically and connect the puzzle, if you want to. (Great read) 
  2. Julianna Baggott’s Pure. This is a young adult fiction novel that blends literary and commercial work. In it, each chapter is labeled with the perspective of the character it’s written from and they go back and forth. It really helps the reader see all sides of the coin. In terms of format, think Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. (Also a great read.)
  3. Russell BanksThe Sweet Hereafter. This format is similar to Pure, in the way that each story is from a different character’s POV, but it focuses around one event. If you’re writing something more singular and trying to include so many thoughts, this could be a handy study guide.

Of course there are more, these are just a few more recent reads I wanted to mention. But lets say you’re in a hurry for some reason and you just don’t have time to sit down and not only read a bunch of character-rich books, but truly study their craftsmanship.

Alternative route? TV. Lots of shows get you invested in multiple characters. It’s become incredibly popular in recent years to have large ensemble casts and it’s a trend starting to show up in film more and more as well. (See Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve for example. –Not movies I recommend on merit, however.)

Which television shows are good for this?

Number 1, without a doubt, is Friday Night Lights.

Friday Night Lights cast

If you’re unfamiliar with the show, you should check it out. (All 5 seasons are on Netflix.) There is a never ending supply of simultaneous storylines in that show. Lets see how many major characters I can think of off the top of my head…

       Coach, Mrs. Taylor, Julie, Saracen, Riggins, Lila, Street, Tyra, Landry, Buddy, Billy, Mindy, “Grandma,” Smash, Vince, Jess, Luke, Becky, JD. (19!)

Alright, I’m just going to stop, but I could keep going.

It sounds hectic, but honestly, the writing and production are so good that you can follow it all and you can’t help but to be invested.

Other such shows are Nashville, Chicago Fire, Grey’s Anatomy (the early seasons), and Prison Break.

Nashville, Chicago Fire, Grey's Anatomy, Prison Break

With that in mind, I am not saying avoid the reading and watch TV. In fact, I’m not saying that at all, nor would I ever! Why should someone read your work someday if you’re not reading anyone’s? But if you find yourself needing to give your brain a bit of a rest or are unable to sit down with a book for a moment, I’d recommend a little not-so-mindless TV, but mostly Friday Night Lights. It’s a forever-favorite!

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UPDATE:

As it turns out, author Cathy Day has a blog post about this very issue. It offers strategy and other book recommendations. Click here to check it out!

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One thought on “Multiple Character Arcs, are you frustrated?”

  1. Nice post, way to weave in multi-media instead of sticking to just the novel format. Another fantastic multi-character book I would suggest is Pamela Freeman’s “The Castings Trilogy”. I can’t begin to comprehend what her storyboard must have looked like. It’s a great read overall but to sit down and study the work that went into making that trilogy…It will blow your mind.

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