The core of my story revolves around my protagonist forming a pirate crew in order to rescue her sister from the villain. My main concern is that I don’t want to fall into a pattern of “protagonist meets character A” then “protagonist meets character B” and so forth until the crew is complete.
What would be your advice on how to prevent that from happening and, more generally, how to introduce and handle large casts of characters?
Thanks a lot for your time and your amazing work!
Hey, Frank, thanks for writing in!
The first thing I’ll say is that having your protagonist meet and recruit a number of supporting characters isn’t something you have to be afraid of! It’s a perfectly serviceable trope that readers are happy to enjoy. The main tips I have for that kind of story are…
- If your hero is spending a lot of time recruiting a crew, then recruiting the crew needs to be a conflict.
- Maybe the hero has to convince other characters to join, or they need to pull off a heist to get the money for wages.
- So long as something is happening beyond job interviews.
- The recruited characters should be distinct and fulfill different roles.
- In most cases, you don’t need to show the hero recruiting two snipers.
- Maybe if you’re planning on having a sniper rivalry or something.
- But a sniper and an explosives expert can be done separately.
- In most cases, you don’t need to show the hero recruiting two snipers.
- Major characters should generally all be introduced before the one-third mark, even if they don’t get hired until later.
- If the hero doesn’t meet them in that time, they should at least hear of the character by reputation.
On the other hand, if that’s not something you’re interested in, then you can shorten how long it takes by simply having the hero hire more than one person at a time. They can put out the word that they’re hiring a crew, and then you can summarize that they have a crew now. No need to dwell on stuff that doesn’t interest you.
As for how to handle a large cast, that’s a much broader question, and my general advice is to only include as many characters as you need. The more distinct and prominent a character’s role in the story, the more likely readers are to remember them. For example, if you already have a character who serves as the hero’s emotional support, you probably don’t need to introduce another character to do that. And if you find that another character is also free to perform that role, then you can combine two characters into one.
The more you do this, the more you ensure that every remaining character will be distinct and memorable. We also have a few posts that you can check out:
- Five Useless Characters and How to Fix Them
- Six Stories That Focus Too Much on Side Characters
- Six Archetypes for Sidekicks
- Five Ways to Handle Characters With Different Power Levels
Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your story!
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Comments on How Should My Hero Recruit a Crew?
There’s always the ‘getting the band back together’ trope.
Perhaps the hero already knows people from some previous crew they served on, and it’s a matter of breaking them out of jail/sobering them up/persuading them to come out of retirement for one last mission/recruiting their son or daughter to follow in the family footsteps/whatever.
Always a good one. That allows for a lot of different bits of storytelling as there are different challenges and stakes.
This made me think of the DS9 episode “The Magnificent Ferengi” where Quark has to put together a team to rescue his mother. Each time he brings in a new teammate the reward goes down and this becomes a problem later. The team is put together quickly and has their own motivations. One member, Brunt, seeks out Quark to join them for his own reasons. That’s a way to shake things up in terms of gathering the characters.
I’d go with the “cast for hire” route, as it gives room to develop the relationship between characters and add conflict when the money run low. By that point some of the characters would keep going based on friendship, but there will be tension.
There are two things to look for: interesting characters, and interesting hiring methods. So you can describe the protagonist hire an interesting character in a bland way, or one or more bland characters in an interesting way; or both, but that should be an exception, used for the characters you *really* want to stand out.
There are a couple of methods from history that could serve as a basis for recruitment.
–Advertisement. Why go to them when you can have them come to you? Have your character print some fliers or broadsheets, or drop some discreet hints at the local tavern/on the dock, then wait for folks to come to him. As an author this lets you deal with meeting the gang while other stuff is happening.
–Impressment. Typically this was done for official navies, but you have a few options for pirates. It was pretty common in that age to offer captive enemy sailors the option to switch sides–no sense letting that knowledge go to waste–and it wasn’t uncommon to force enemy sailors to operate the ship. This can (and historically did) create a lot of tension. “The Sea Wolf” uses this to start the story, for example.
–Followers. Officers often had people loyal to them–officers and sailors that would follow them from ship to ship. Pirates were no different. This means that if you recruit one person you get 10. If you can’t think of a way to get a character on board ship, have them be a follower of some other character and you’ve got sufficient justification.
(As an aside, historically, in the British navy at least, wives and other women came aboard this way. There were enough at the Battle of the Nile to petition Parliament to award the women the medal associated with that victory. They were turned down, but Parliament had no qualms acknowledging that they fought in the battle; they were turned down for matters of policy, not fact. So this offers ample opportunity to be both historically accurate and more diverse than these books have historically been.)
–Done deal. This is more literary than recruitment, but you can have situations where you don’t meet everyone until you’re well out to sea–some people come with the ship, or the captain is told to take on these people. As an author you can deal with this by showing interactions at dinners or other more social periods in naval life. Patrick O’Brian is a master at that if you want some examples.
Note that any and all of these can happen at any encounter between the ship and some other group of humans–ports, islands, other ships, anything. So you can spread the additions to the crew across the run of the book. While you may want to introduce major characters in the first third of the book, in naval fiction it’s justifiable (historically and literarily) to kill off even major characters randomly–spars fall in storms, diseases happen, and battles are blind chance once the grape and canister shot start coming aboard–so you have opportunities to create drama by trading out characters even fairly late in the book, especially if you’re going for a historic tone.
Having the crew discover a stowaway after they’re under way is another source of conflict. The stowaway is likely to end up in the brig, at first. But if the crew is short-handed and the stowaway turns out to have a needed skill, then they have to make a decision. Can they trust their prisoner enough to take them on as a crew member? And why did they sneak aboard to begin with?
If you’re looking for inspiration on how to introduce a crew, I cannot recommend the show Leverage enough. It’s got a new version (Leverage: Redemption), but the 2008 first episode still holds up pretty damn well on a craft level.
Of course writing is different from a visual medium, and certainly more difficult when it comes to remembering a number of characters. I think the sequential introduction is popular because, well, unless the writing is quite bad it works by default. You establish reader connection to Character A, the protagonist. They meet character B, and you use that connection to establish the relation between A and B.
Keep in mind there are ways to do this that don’t resemble separate job interviews. Assuming the protagonist is the captain they have a perfectly good excuse to talk to any member of the crew. You just need to come up with some common thread to link everything together, for interest’s sake.
Example: a storm. Captain is in quarters. Casual environmental description involving signs of distant thunder. Brief conversation with Character A about something relating to the main plot of the story. Character A could be the first mate, gunner, whatever makes sense. Character C knocks on door, has concern that requires Captain go to different part of ship. Captain notices stormclouds while outdoors, reaction to this dependent on characterisation. Exchange with character C while in transit and at destination. Thinking of storm, Captain excuses themselves to find Character D for advice on how to handle it.
And so on until the storm hits them, where there’ll probably be a lot more varied interaction. Hopefully the reader will remember at least one thing about each character thanks to the buildup, and the crisis situation can be used to establish even more individuality via reactions.