How Herding Characters Can Improve Your Cast

Written by Chihuahua Zero (@chihuahuazero)

Sometimes, when you can't keep track of all of your characters, herding them is the way to go.

Not literal herding, as in "cattle herding"! Figurative herding, of course!

What is cast herding?

Cast herding, as described by TV Tropes, is the splitting of a large ensemble of characters into distinct groups. These groups can take many forms, whatever they're formal organizations, families, or bands of friends.

In any case, these groups tend to interact with each other more than people outside their group. So when you focus on any particular group, you associate a character with that group. This categorization make memorization easier.

Does that make sense? It lets you establish a memorable dynamic, and prevent your readers from getting too confused when you're dealing with a huge amount of characters.

Why should I even herd my characters?

Whatever the author intends to herd their characters or not, it happens. 

It helps that humans--or human-like characters--are social creatures, and therefore associate themselves with certain people, so this happens naturally.

Pick up any book, and you'll see it. One example? Harry Potter

There are a lot of Muggles and Wizards in seven books...wait, those are already two herds! Wouldn't it be much harder to remember the differences between the Dursleys and the Weasleys...which are two other herds?

Don't forget the four houses at Hogwarts! Wouldn't keeping track of everyone would've been even harder if they weren't categorized by house?

A more practical application of herding in action is in Divergent. Throughout the book, faction names are applied to each characters, along with whatever they transferred into a faction, or were born into it. In-universe enforcement can help readers remember the roles of minor characters like Myra (a Dauntless transfer who only serves to fill in the cast), even if you haven't seen him or her for awhile.

How can this help my writing?

Sometimes, you have a lot of characters. And in those moments, you wonder "how can I remember them, much less the readers"? It's a problem you might encounter while writing novels or other long pieces boasting huge ensembles.

It's an easy fix. 

If you're having trouble keeping track of all your characters, go get a piece of paper (or start a new Word document), and list all the different groups in your story. And then put your characters into each one. Don't worry if there's overlap. There should be.

In a way, this is a kind of outlining, and this can lead to a mental shift. What scenarios can you think up with these groups? What if this character deflects from this group to that group? Could I forge new relationships between these two members to cause more conflict or deepen characterization and setting?

Also with cast herding, you can figure out the roles of each character more clearly. Maybe you might find out that two certain characters are better off being combined  or another character needs to be introduced to flesh out a dynamic.

With cast herding in mind, you can even actually make it seem like there aren't enough characters!

Just don't get too wild with your cattle--er, characters.

YOUR TURN: Do you have trouble with having too many characters in your story? How do you keep track of them?