Prepping for a Crowd

One of the toughest things I’ve ever found to do is writing scenes with lots and lots of characters (which can just mean “more than four or five who aren’t controlled by someone else”). I’ve talked about this before, mostly with characters all directly interacting with each other, but there always seems to be more to learn—so this time, I’m going to talk about getting ready for one of these scenes.

Make sure you know not only which characters you’ll definitely be using, but which ones might be potentially drawn in from outside. While this is useful for writers who aren’t working entirely from an outline, it’s practically vital for GMs conducting a scene with a large number of characters in an area where player actions could easily bring more characters into the mix. Nothing messes up your already strained pacing like having to stop for a moment and improvise a newly invoked character or try to reintegrate an existing one who wasn’t directly on the scene into the confusion.

Script ahead as much of your background stuff as possible. Yes, even if this is your book rather than your game. For the GM, this allows the background to continue progressing without slowing down the game’s pace by having to think of what to say: all that matters is throwing the events out in order. On the writer’s part, the tactic means that the tough thinking for the background is out of the way, and one can concentrate on the parts that are actually important to keeping the scene going.

Try to keep track of everyone’s physical location, whether you’re sharing this tracking with anyone else or not. A map is the most straightforward way, with either scribbled lines or movable counters—and as an added bonus, you can even plan out some of the locations ahead of time for maximum havoc potential (Lois McMaster Bujold did this using pink and blue sticky notes to determine seating arrangements for a dinner scene in A Civil Campaign). This allows you to make sure that everything that happens is possible, and that your events aren’t going to contradict each other; with the map, you can tell at a glance whether it would make sense for characters in group A to overhear what’s going on in group B and/or notice the character skulking around at Point Q.

Think about what kind of multi-character scene this is. In some, like battles or meetings, everybody’s technically moving in the same direction: sure, they’ll occasionally break off for smaller battles or little digression conversations, but overall there’s one major question that they’re all resolving in their own little ways. Others are more aimless, or more multidirectional, like parties or market crowds; some people might be trying to hear everything, but in general nobody has reason to try to keep track of all the conversation threads or bring people back on topic, so all the little discussions and debates and so on meander down their own paths.

Remember agendas and narrative anchors! If you’ve just found the entire scene going in a direction you weren’t expecting, you can often manage the rest of it by keeping firmly in mind what each character’s objective is and sticking to it, and by using the cues you’ve created to make sure that every character has a turn.

Have a plan for if you get overwhelmed. For writers, this can be as simple as “step away from the manuscript”, while GMs may need to focus more on coping measures like focusing on one or two conversations, bringing split party members back together to cut down on separate conversation threads, or the like, with taking a break as a last resort.

Juggling lots of characters can be overwhelming, but planning ahead makes it much, much easier.


  1. Michael says:

    Very useful pointers. I’ll have to bear those in mind next time I’m writing a crowd scene, and get back to you as to how successful they were!

  2. Ravyn says:

    Thanks; can’t wait to hear it!

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