How to deal with a lot of important characters and all their throughlines

by Ariane

Question: I've been worldbuilding a fantasy universe for more than 10 years... suffice it to say that I now have a WHOLE F*** LOT of characters, most of them having the potential to be protagonists.

Now, I'm getting tired of going nowhere and I'm determined to FINALLY write a novel from start to finish. I find all your articles really helpful, even if I had to translate most of the terms to start using it (I write in French, my maternal language), but most of them seems to assume the existence of only ONE protagonist, which I agree is the case with most novels.

But what about novels like A Song Of Ice And Fire (and many others, mostly in the fantasy genre) who have a lot of "point of view" characters, all of them essential to the story, who each have their own throughlines? What's the best way of dealing with this, of organizing that kind of story without sacrificing characterization and coherence? Do you have some advice for people in my position?

Thank you in advance for your time and your help :)

Answer: It sounds like you're a plotter by nature. If so, your biggest challenge may be finding the opportunities to stop plotting and start writing.


The basic principle is that every POV character is the main character of his/her own story. So one novel can contain several stories that share an overall plot and story world. How much you choose to develop each of these POV characters is up to you. Some may be more important than others. You may have one primary POV character and several secondary characters. The trade off is that the more secondary POV characters you have and the more time you spend with them, the less connection the reader feels with the primary POV.

At any rate, the more important a POV character is, the more you should develop his/her inner conflict. Each fully-developed POV character may need an impact character to force them to question their approach (the arc of that influence can be a throughline in itself). The progress of their relationship may also have its own throughline.

Obviously, as the story progresses, you will shift among the various throughlines, telling a little bit of one person's story, then a little bit of another, etc.

One way to organize all these throughlines is to use index cards, or their equivalent. Choose a different colour of card for each throughline or perhaps use coloured dots to keep them separate. Write each event in the story on a separate card.

Notice I say "event" rather than "scene." An event is a change. One scene can contain several events from different throughlines (this is how throughlines cross).

From here, there are two ways to work out your plot.

The first way: work out one throughline at a time.

Perhaps start with the overall story. Line up all the events in this throughline in a row. Then do another row for the primary POV character. Make sure these throughlines progress through the four stages of a dramatic arc:

setup --> complication --> crisis --> resolution

You want to make sure each throughline is emotionally compelling on its own, before you combine them.

Similarly, work out separate rows for the other throughlines.

The result will be a set of parallel rows of cards (one per throughline), laid out on a wall or surface.

The nice thing about cards is that when you get a better idea, you can easily take out a card and replace it with a new one. You can add transition events when you see the need or take out cards that prove unnecessary.

Once you have all the throughlines all worked out separately, combine them into long one chronological sequence.

You may find it helpful to use a calendar or timeline in doing this.

The only guidelines are...

1. All the "setups" go in act 1. All the complications go in act 2. All the crises go in act 3. All the resolutions go in act 4.

2. A throughline won't make sense if you put the resolution before the crisis. Similarly, don't put the crisis before the complication or the complication before the setup.

If you read through the cards from start to finish, it should sound very story-like. It should feel emotionally right.

Once you have the entire story worked out chronologically, you have the option of telling the story in a non-chronological way. But it helps to work out the chronology first.

The second way: work out one act at a time. Sometimes this is easier, especially if you have a lot of throughlines.

Divide the cards into four piles (one for each act). Now go through one pile at a time and put them in the most emotionally compelling order. Start at a place that hooks the reader. End with something that will compel the reader to read the next act.

Pay attention to any abrupt changes that may indicate a plot hole you may need to fill. Cut any events that are not needed.

Once you have all four acts of the story worked out, go back and read each throughline in isolation, to make sure all the major arcs are emotionally compelling.

If your story is very complex, you may decide it is better told in a multi-volume work, in which case each book may be an act. (In trilogies, the middle book usually combines acts 2 and 3.) In that case, it is especially valuable to make each act dramatically sound.

Again, don't be afraid to shift from plotting to writing at any time. If you get an idea for scene, for example, even if it's in the middle of the story, you can write a rough draft of it before moving on.

Best of luck.

Comments for How to deal with a lot of important characters and all their throughlines

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Oct 04, 2015
Thank you
by: Ariane

Thank you for answering my question ! I'm sorry it took so long for me to respond, school monopolize a lot of my time :)
Your answer is very helpful ; I didn't thought of using little cards to organize everything ! I'm gonna try that trick soon :) We'll see where it takes me (and all my characters too !).
Thanks again

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