Sunday 5 February 2017

Advice for writers #12: hidden gems or crazy counsel? A mere 20 for Shakespeare and 2 dogs called Tina?

On stage next in THIS SERIES of quotes is number #12.

“Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare has perhaps 20 players. I have 10 or so and that’s a lot. As you get older you get more skilful at casting them” (Gore Vidal)

This is an interesting one that has different angles. Those imaginary friends that children have; the sort that John Windham takes to a new level in Chocky; the Gondolians and Angrians of the Brontes’ childhoods. Perhaps a degree of hyperbole here though. Each and every writer? I’m not sure about that. Is it that each and every person is born with Vidal’s repertory company, but not all of them go on to be writers?

Moving on from the ‘born with’ aspect, let’s look at the size of this repertory company. Vidal lays claim to 10 or so and says that’s a lot. With the caveat that I’m not going to trawl his writing in order to analyse each character looking for pastiche and cloning, and I’ve no evidence to suggest that he or anyone else has carried out that thankless task (imagine having to set aside the reading enjoyment to keep turning back to cold analysis) I’m prepared to accept that he’s about right. With six (soon to be seven) series novels under my belt plus a children’s book, my repertory company is no bigger, perhaps a little smaller. I’m not counting extras and I’m taking into account those players who I have a tendency to typecast. I’m in good company in this recycling of souls. Alan Bennett said he didn’t realise for a long time that the dogs in Miss Fozzard finds her Feet and The Outside Dog were both called Tina.

Annie’s Aunt Marian is one of mine. Any time I need a woman over a certain age I find myself casting her again. Timothy’s great aunt (as yet unpublished) is, now I think of it, the same actor playing a different role. And yes of course some books have casts of hundreds / thousands, but they are extras hired in for the book and not part of the company.

Over the years I’ve done quite a bit of editing and I’ve judged writing competitions. One thing that distinguishes an experienced writer from a novice is the size of the cast. A whole host of named characters piling on stage on page one; named extras, whose only role is to bulk out a crowd, are signs that the writer is new to this stuff.

On the face of it, a repertory company of 10 players for himself and a mere 20 for Shakespeare might sound like a huge underestimate, but Vidal hits on a good point and it’s one worth remembering especially as you set out on your first writing assignment.


  1. Ah, the repertory company. I suspect many writers don't realise they recycle the same characters under a change of name and location. My fantasy series has a cast of named characters numbering over 110, each of whom has a written character sketch with picture, description and some background history. But, essentially, I imagine most are mixtures of people I've known personally or come across in other works of fiction. But I'm ruthless about my cast: once the book's written, they're sent off stage in readiness for the next set of players to present themselves for the new book.
    I hold a folder of 'used characters' in case I need a certain 'type' in a story but, now I think about it, I don't think I've ever actually consulted it for this purpose. Perhaps I should, and save myself some time!
    Interesting piece, Penny. Thought-provoking and enjoyable. Thank you.

    1. Ah yes, I'm familiar with your mega-casts, Stuart. The Seared Sky trilogy springs to mind - It all worked beautifully on the page but keeping that company under control during the development of the series must have been daunting. I believe you have blogged about several aspects of it.

    2. You're right, Penny. I did blog about this, way back in 2013/14 on my old blog, which is no longer extant. Perhaps it's time I looked at this aspect again on the new blog! Thanks for the reminder! Meanwhile, my current WIP involves fewer characters, but some of those aren't human!

  2. I never thought of characters in terms of a repertory company. What an interesting idea and excellent advice to help a writer not have the stage so crowded nobody can move on it.

    1. Thanks for calling in April. I hadn't thought of characters in this way before unpacking this quote, but it gives a useful perspective.