But it seems really hard to do right.
That's hitting the nail on the head here.
There is no objectively superior answer here. This is a risk versus reward evalution.
If you take the hard route, the payoff might be bigger, but the chance of success decreases. If you take the easy route, the chance of success increases, but the payoff from succeeding will be lower.
Can it be done?
Yes. Forgoing the almost obvious Song Of Ice And Fire/Game Of Thrones example, another good (but less extreme) example is Firefly (the TV show).
Nine protagonists is not an easy amount to handle (comparatively, The Expanse makes do with a crew of 4 that still covers a lot of different personalities). This is noticeable in the pilot episode. It takes a significant amount of screen time for the characters to make each other's acquaintance; and even then 5 out of 9 characters already know each other (so they don't need explicit introductions) and we haven't even scratched more than the surface of anyone's personality.
However, the introductory phase succeeded, and this paid off hugely in the subsequent episodes:
- There was enough backstory for enough characters that every episode could reveal something new; without it feeling like forced or filler plot.
- There were a lot of possible interactions, thus allowing for a wide range of possible plots. The same plot, tackled by 3 randomly assigned characters, would be immensely different just by picking different characters.
I picked Firefly, because its downfall (cancellation after one season) is relevant here. When they aired the show, they skipped the pilot and started from episode 2.
For a simple plot with minimal characters, that could work. E.g. it doesn't take a new viewer long to understand the relationship of the characters in The Simpsons. You can start watching the Simpsons from pretty much any episode and understand the backstory in under 5 minutes.
But for Firefly, this was not the case. There was an intricate web of relationships between the characters, which the viewers simply were not aware of. They saw a bunch of people interacting with each other without much further explicit exposition.
As a result, the viewer rating tanked. The viewers lost interest in the complex story that didn't seem coherent to them.
The main thing to take away here is if you fail the introductory phase; it's going to be very hard to recover from that. You need to get it right.
So how to do the introductory phase?
You can't introduce every character at once. People's heads will explode and they will discard your story as too complicated. So let's say you first introduce A, B and C; but you keep Z (who is related to the plot but not as close to the core) out of sight for now. Let's assume they are all family that live together.
That's an issue. Z is part of the plot from the beginning, but simply not in focus. If you only start mentioning him in later chapters, it seems like he came out of nowhere, which makes your story seem less like a web of connections.
But if you mention Z from the beginning, then you're effectively introducing him. What gives?
The trick here is to downplay the character, and mention his existence but do so in a way that implies he is a minor character. Note that you can't do so explicitly, because then you're lying to the reader.
Okay, maybe a Game of Thrones reference anyway. Note that I'm referencing the show, not the books.
Sandor "The Hound" Clegane was initially known as only The Hound. We didn't really know him as a person. He wasn't a nuanced character. He was gruff, immediately recognizable (either by the helmet or the burn marks) and showed no real interest in the current protagonists. (1)
He is actually present in many scenes, but his presence was not required. The scenes would have worked if you swapped him out for any random guard.
But at some point, he becomes a major character. This happens when he leaves King's Landing. This is a break, which needs to change the viewer's perception of him to accept him as a major character. And this break is done quite clearly:
Fuck the king.
For someone who is the right hand of the monarchy, who has not only defended the king but has also actively crushed those who opposed the king, this statement is strong. It has nothing to do with the swearing, but it shows individuality and independence. (2)
This immediately elevates him from "that disfigured guard" to "that guy who publically renounces the king", which is a massive statement of character in a story like Game of Thrones'.
Some interesting sidenotes:
- I don't always do it intentionally, but from this point on, I often refer to him as Sandor instead of The Hound. He's no longer playing the guard dog, so the name doesn't seem as applicable anymore. This wasn't a willful thing I chose to do, it happened without me realizing. I think that somewhat proves the point that my perception of the character dramatically shifted.
- Other than his explicit introduction in the pilot episode, I don't even remember his presence in most scenes (before the "Fuck the king" scene). It's only when I rewatched the earlier episodes that I noticed how omnipresent he was. That also proves the point that he was there all along, I (as a viewer) failed to register him. The director did not hide him from me.
- There are other character who were introduced later in the show and appeared out of nowhere (e.g. Daario, Missandei). I am considerably less invested in these characters, since they haven't yet proven to be relevant to the core plot.
- Bloodraven was also introduced at a later stage, and has has less screentime or character development than Daario or Missandai. However, the story makes it explicitly known that he was there (behind the scenes) all along and was involved in the main plot (though we don't know exactly how), which makes him more relevant to the core plot and therefore makes me more invested in him.
(1) A similar thing happens to Sam in the Lord of the Rings. He's foisted onto Frodo's journey by Gandalf (unplanned), he addresses Frodo as "Mister Frodo", and he is horribly naive and lighthearted. These things all initially suggest that Sam is a minor character who is oversimplified and will not meaningfully contribute.
It is by design that both Frodo and the reader/viewer wrongly discard Sam as a sidekick, only to then realize he perseveres where Frodo fails. For example, whereas Sam's distrust of Gollum initially seemed like smallmindedness, his distrust ends up saving the plot.
(2) There were a few earlier scenes that set the stage for his break in character, e.g. when he saves Sansa from being raped. However, that is a hint, not a clear indication. To the viewer, he could still be motivated by wanting to protect the monarchy (since Sansa was betrothed to the king) rather than doing it out of a sense of justice.
- Only take on the job of many story arcs if you're going to put in the required effort into each and every one of them. Avoid half-assed arcs. The standard of quality must be held high if you're going to make the reader endure getting to know all these characters. Make it worthwhile in the end.
- Introduce characters when they first appear.
- Flesh out characters gradually. Don't do too many at the same time.
- Do not omit characters that are not yet fleshed out. Simply downgrade them to a minor character (or even a background character) who can still be easily identified (like The Hound's face burn scar).
- Rely on the reader to not bother with actively learning about minor characters. They focus on the major characters so that they do not become overburdened.
- This enforces an implicit agreement between the writer and the reader. The reader needs to learn about the major characters, but can learn about the minor characters if they want to invest the effort. You don't force the reader to focus on currently inconsequential figures.
- When a character moves from minor to major, showcase this break. Have them state or endure something that the reader will vividly remember. It defines the character and makes them worthwhile to keep an eye on.
One more reference
To a video game series. The Shadow of Mordor game series has been built on creating a dynamic narrative for the player, and uses a technique similar to the one I was referencing.
A short summary of the game:
- The player spends his time killing an endless army of Orcs, which are a dime a dozen, except for the Captains, who have individual names, strenghts, weaknesses.
- The player respawns after death (part of the story - not just a gameplay "hack"). The world continues after his death, and will acknowledge that he has died.
- The player doesn't just kill. He can also influence the promotional hierarchy of the Orc army. A captain that kills the player (or other captains) gets promoted and becomes stronger.
This last part is essential to making the enemy feel like they are a dynamic army where orcs can go from being a minor enemy to a major nemesis for the player (ding! this is why I'm talking about it).
Most Orcs the player kills are foot soldiers. They have no name. They are easy to kill, and usually pose no threat. The player is mostly focused on hacking his way through in order to get to the Captain that is nearby.
However, it can happen that a grunt kills the player. When this happen, the grunt gets a cutscene, where he taunts the dying player and tells him how the player will always remember him as [insert Orc Name here]. This Orc is then promoted to captain and given a name, strengths, and weaknesses. Some of them will thank the player for getting them promoted.
Taunting the player (or at least making a speech) is essential to making the Orc stand out from the grunts. The player will remember them by what they say during their speech. It sets the stage for the expected future interaction with the player.
As a simple example, let's say that a grunt gets a lucky shot in at you. The grunt makes a speech, "Haha. You fucking idiot. You don't stand a chance against me.", and the grunt takes on the name Shrak The Superior. You will remember him, and you will want to seek him out just to wipe that smile off his face.
This is the definining feature that makes the game feel like a living world. The player now understand that any of the thousands of Orcs that he kills could become the next Captain. He sees that the army of Orcs is a web of connections.
Note that the choice here is secretly forced. The grunts don't have names and backstories. The game just generates a name and backstory when it needs to (on grunt promotion). Since the player doesn't know the grunt's name until it is stated, he is therefore unable to see that the game invented a backstory on the fly.