The Challenge and Freedom of Managing a Large Cast of Characters

Rebekah Bergman

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 173.

By the time I realized that I was writing a novel—The Museum of Human History, which will be published by Tin House next month—I was many years into a manuscript that I thought would be a collection of linked stories. There were almost a dozen protagonists. I often felt overwhelmed by the challenge of having so many central characters, with timelines that went back not only decades but generations and even millennia. Revision required a lot of wrangling and untangling to ensure continuity and alignment of plotted events. I developed several strategies for managing it all. 

For starters, I kept a massive spreadsheet that I titled, simply, “Planner” to map and chart the characters, noting where they appeared in the book and how they connected to one another. I had tabs to keep track of chronology and potential plot holes, needs for future revisions, and even reminders of where the latest drafts were stored and what the files were named. Due to the complicated structure of the book, any change I made to one character’s story reverberated through others’, so it was important to keep track of these details. Maintaining the spreadsheet made me feel a bit like a conspiracy theorist, with one of those “evidence” walls with red string and thumbtacks. On many occasions I vowed to my writer friends that the next novel I wrote would follow a single character over the course of a day. 

Despite all the complexity that came along with such a big cast, I have to say that my characters also afforded me some freedom. In his craft book, Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts (Soho Press, 2022), Matt Bell says a novelist should follow their excitement in a first draft. “In general,” he writes, “if you’re not excited about what you’re writing, consider writing something else.” By this he does not mean abandoning the manuscript but moving to a different point in it, going “to where your energy is highest,” or “somewhere else.” Bell’s advice, for me, became to write someone else. One day I would explore a young widower remembering the final trip he took with his late wife, and the next I would jump to a mysterious artist and dream up new concepts for her performance art. Or I would be with a lonely museum owner as he built his collection of artifacts to preserve the history he’d devoted his life to. Even though I was working on this project for far longer than anything I’d ever tried to write before, following my excitement by leaping to someone else in my novel meant I never grew bored with it. After all, I had populated the book with so many people who genuinely interested me. 

Maintaining a wide cast enabled me to more deeply explore my novel’s main themes. The book is concerned with time and the anxiety of forgetting and being forgotten. It considers if and how we might live on in someone else’s memory. Each of my major characters takes a primary role in one plotline and a secondary role in others. These interconnections opened up avenues through which I could investigate my themes. One character in my book says that memory is “a thing you cannot really share with anyone else.” That might be true for her—and for all of us—but through my chorus of voices, I was able to challenge that idea, examining the mechanisms of memory outside of any individual experience of it. What one character wishes could be forgotten, another character recalls. A key detail overlooked or misremembered creates a cascade of consequences, and the act of uncovering the past changes it fundamentally.  

I cannot say that these were the easiest ways to write a novel, especially a debut. I’m sure they were not! But is there any easy way to write a novel? Now that I’ve done it—wrangled and untangled these fictional lives to craft a braided, central narrative arc—I can see these strategies were essential: There was no other way I could have told the story I wanted to tell.


Rebekah Bergman’s debut novel The Museum of Human History will be published by Tin House in August. Her fiction has been published in JoylandTin House, the Masters Review Anthology, and other publications. She lives in Rhode Island with her family. Read more:

Art: Chuttersnap