Once Upon A Time Writing Lesson: Right-Sizing Cast

Once Upon a Time is a case study for plotting out a series. It exhibits why it is important to have a game plan–no matter how rough–in place at the beginning of a creative endeavor. This helps writers avoid retreading past plot points or completely dropping the ball on others. Characters need to go hand in hand with this early plotting–their arcs, their backgrounds, etc.

As its seasons continued, OUAT’s cast ballooned. Since most were well-known fairy tale characters, they were easy for the audience to remember, but this is not going to be a luxury extended to most fiction writers who employ original characters. However, while having access to notable characters aided the audience’s memory, OUAT’s sizable cast fell into another pitfall: it’d become so big characters simply fell through the cracks, taking with them pesky storylines that would never be wrapped up.

As was mentioned in my previous OUAT article, there are external factors that played a part in characters disappearing (some temporarily, others forever). Actors are living, breathing human beings, with their own separate goals from the characters they portray, and they will come and go from roles all of the time. It could, however, be argued that if your core cast has plenty to do and some measure of importance, an actor is more likely to remain engaged in their character instead of choosing to pursue other, juicier roles. Of course, that isn’t always the case since some roles are always going to be too good to turn down.

Ruby from Once Upon A Time
Ruby was an interesting character with a fully fleshed-out background; however, as the series progressed, there was no room for her in the narrative.

The biggest missed opportunity was Ruby. At the beginning of the series, she became a fan favorite, her personality really shining, but eventually, she vanished only to return in season five but without any staying power. She then completely disappeared after giving Dorothy of Wizard of Oz fame a true love’s kiss. It’s a shame because Ruby had a great friend chemistry with Emma and had a rich backstory.

Other notable characters to fall through the crack include Maleficent and her daughter Lily–their arc goes uncompleted–Mulan, and Sleeping Beauty. Instead, we got a revolving door of new characters after pilfering Disney’s catalog. While I’d watched until the very end, I know quite a few people hopped off during the Frozen season. One complaint I heard was beloved show characters were being sidelined for popular Disney characters. The increasing level of soap opera-esque character relations and connections bothered others. Seriously. Everyone was related to everyone–if not by blood, then by marriage.

Having plotted long-term goals for the series, including character arcs, would have helped considerably while also increasing viewer satisfaction that their favorite characters were treated fairly. Long-term planning would have ensured a streamlined cast since writers would have known who was needed and who was not. It might have also slowed (but I doubt eliminate) the raiding of popular Disney characters.


To use a fleet service term, it is important to “right-size” a cast. You don’t want too few or too many characters — instead, you want the right amount to move your plot forward. That task requires an honest look at your plot. It isn’t easy, especially since it is so easy to become enraptured by characters, secondary characters, and even fringe characters who are meant to be one and off. Sometimes, with reflection, it becomes clear that darlings have to die either within the story itself or in the planning or revision stages. It hurts, but sometimes it is exactly what the story requires or what an author requires to make their job easier.

Making the call to keep or cut characters can be stressful to say the least. Having an overall game plan for your story can help eliminate unnecessary characters with peace of mind. (www_slon_pics/Pixabay.com)

For The Heritage Lost Series, I have four planned books within the main series and have about three to four companion novels in mind. Some of these books are more plotted out compared to others, but in general, I know where I’m going, just some of the terrain I have to cover is a bit sparse. Even with careful examination of my series plot, I still worry that my cast in the Heritage Lost Series is too large at times.

A beta reader had even suggested trimming down my Oneiroi crew, which I did take to heart, but opted not to in the long run. As a special forces team, I felt taking the number below eight would be a stretch. Instead, I tried to expand on the characters and their appearances to make each stand apart a little bit better. Having an Oneiroi companion novel (it’s pretty much Book 2.5) planned, I also knew all were needed to make what they need to do happen. The book also gives them as a cast the opportunity the grow and stand out with readers — at least, that is the game plan.

While the Oneiroi crew of the Boreas survived the ax in the planning stage (Will they all survive the series? . . . Undetermined.), one character (A) recently didn’t pass muster. I determined that her role and that of another character (B) were almost identical. I rebelled against the idea that I couldn’t have both; after all, Character A’s backstory was so unique and I had this really great scene that I want to use. But over a lunch brooding session, I realized that I would be shortchanging both characters by trying to keep them both.

Separate, they have seen much-reduced roles with Character A having a major role in Book 2 and 2.5 before (much like Ruby) dropping through the cracks to make way for Character B. Why was I fighting so hard to keep Character A only to let her vanish? Of the two characters, I realized Character B held far more importance. She has a very close tie to one of my main characters. Knowing where the series would go, I made the wise decision to let her take the lead in Book 2 and 2.5. It might have hurt at first, but from where I stand now, I’m no longer fretting about Character A; I’m more focused on giving Character B a juicy role that has more impact on my main character.

  • Are two characters fulfilling the same role? Critically examine both characters and test alternative writing routes where one or the other character no longer exists. After these thought exercises, consider pursuing one of those routes and cutting a character in the planning stage.
  • Do you personally feel overwhelmed with your cast? Sit down with each character, examining their arcs and roles. If you find duplications or a character not adding much to the whole, you might want to right-size them out of your cast (either in the story itself or in the planning stage), so you aren’t juggling as many characters.
  • Readers are struggling to tell my characters apart. What do I do? Assemble your problem children who have been noted as unremarkable by your readers. If they are important to the story, look at how you can develop them further personality-wise, backstory-wise, or appearance-wise to stand out while not unbalancing your story (it is possible to go overboard).
  • Why does this one character keep disappearing into the background? They are not a major player within the scene, and they have been forgotten by the author and the POV character. As also, have an honest look at the scene and the character. Are they needed there? Are they need in general? If the answer is yes, stretch your creative muscles and retool the scene to make it so that character doesn’t disappear into the rather lovely foliage you had described. If the answer is no, potentially omit the character from the scene or sharpen your stabbing knife to eliminate them entirely.

Published by smwright

Sarah Wright is the author of The Heritage Lost Series and several other works of speculative fiction. Professionally, she works as a staff writer and editor at a newspaper/magazine company. She enjoys interweaving her love of history into her writing, even in the most fantastic settings.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: