National Graphic Novel Writing Month Day 25: Wait, Who Was That Again? The Importance Of Cast Lists
Here’s another insanely useful thing when writing: a cast list.
You’ve seen these before, right? Probably when reading Shakespeare. In Romeo and Juliet, the cast list includes entries like:
- Montague, head of one house, at odds with Capulets
- Capulet, head of one house, at odds with Montagues
- Romeo, son to Montague
- Mercutio, kinsman to the Prince and friend to Romeo
- Benvolio, nephew to Montague, and friend to Romeo
- Juliet, daughter to Capulet
- Tybalt, Juliet’s brother
Now, even if you’ve never read Romeo and Juliet, and never heard the story—which means you’ve apparently lived on a remote island all your life, but never mind that now—you already have some idea how this is going to go. Two houses that hate each other, a young man from one house, a young woman from the other—you can practically see the romantic tension brewing. The cast list sets up the key relationships, and then the play just allows them to develop narratively.
But that doesn’t mean you’re going to want to have your cast list on the front page of your graphic novel. Not usually. A few books like the Justice League of America or The Legion of Super-Heroes can get away with that, but that’s because both of those are team books and so they want the reader to know which members of the team are actually involved in each issue.
But normally the cast list isn’t for your readers. It’s for you.
Why? Three reasons. First, it keeps you from forgetting who a character
is. If you’ve only got two or three characters in your story, that’s not
going to be a problem. But if you’ve got a large cast, it can get tough
to keep everyone straight. Was it Joe who was the plumber who witnessed
that shooting, or was that Al? Or was Al the banker who first noticed
the discrepancies in the dead man’s account—or was that Maria? Hang on,
maybe Maria was the waitress who had served the killer coffee and
noticed his gun—but no, I could have sworn that was Denise. Darn! If
only I had a cast list, so I could keep it all clear!
The second reason to use a cast list is because it helps you plan. You
can see at a glance that Romeo and Juliet are going to encounter each
other, and that Mercutio and Benvolio’s friendship with Romeo will be
important—but there’s also a difference between his two friends because
one is his cousin but the other is instead related to the prince. Hm. By
jotting down a little about the character on the cast list, you can
start to see where each person will intersect with others, and that can
help you develop your plot.
The third use is for your artist. A few years back I was working on a
comic book called the Fire of Youth. I had an artist already lined up,
and we’d discussed the premise. Then I wrote up a cast list and sent it
to him. But in addition to a character’s name and occupation or
activity, I included a brief physical description. My artist used those
to create character sketches for each cast member. He sent them to me,
we discussed them, he refined a few, and now he had character templates.
He referred to those when drawing the characters, so that each of them
remained consistent. It was amazingly helpful for both of us.
So you can see why you should have a cast list. It’s a simple enough
thing to do. Sit down and make a list of everyone in your comic. Include
their full name, even if that name hasn’t been mentioned yet—don’t
worry about that so much with incidental figures like the night watchman
we only see in passing and never hear speak, but definitely list names
for anyone significant. Then write down what they do, and how they’re
connected to others: one person’s wife, another’s daughter, another’s
boss, etc. Then include a brief description: tall, short, slender, dark,
attractive, sleazy, and so on. The description doesn’t have to be
strictly physical, either—“sleazy” is more a feeling than a particular
appearance, but it’ll give you the character’s key personality trait
anyway, and gives your artist somewhere to start as well. You can
organize your cast list in order of appearance, in order of importance,
or alphabetically. Just so long as you have an order to it.
And here’s the most important part—remember to update it. If it’s
revealed that one character is another’s illegitimate son, add that to
the cast list (if you didn’t have it there already). If one character
gets fired, alter his entry so that he’s now someone else’s former
employee or former boss. You want the cast list completely up-to-date so
that you can refer back to it as a way of making sure your story is on
track as well.
Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.
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