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How many characters are too many?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by KC Trae Becker, Jun 19, 2015.

  1. KC Trae Becker

    KC Trae Becker Troubadour

    I've had several fellow work shoppers suggest that I have too many characters. They have not been fantasy writers. Some of the fellow work shoppers that are fantasy writers have mentioned that fantasy stories are often character heavy.

    A children's book agent told a friend there should be no more than 5 characters per chapter, counting unnamed animals that flit through. That seems obsessively restrictive advice to me, but do any of you have a general rule of thumb you use for number of characters you use, either by chapter or in a book as a whole.

    Rest assured, this will not be taken as a gospel rule, just a a look about to judge where I stand in the spectrum and if I should listen closely or loosely to my fellow work shoppers.
  2. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    Can your readers keep track of all your characters? If not, you may need to pare them down.

    Are all your characters needed to tell your story or are some of them redundant? Characters each have a role to play. If multiple characters are filling the same role, you should probably get rid of the ones you don't need.

    Is the feedback you are getting based on other writers who are blindly following a "rule," or is it based on their judgment that too many characters are hurting your work?

    It seems like the questions above are better ones to ask than "how many characters are too many."
  3. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    GRRM has been loved & criticized for being too character heavy.

    Don't be too concerned for him though. I hear he's doing quite well for himself.
    KC Trae Becker likes this.
  4. Russ

    Russ Istar

    Number of characters is tricky.

    If you are telling a long, sweeping tale on a broad canvas you might need a whole bunch. If the story is confined in geography, time and focus, than you might well need less.

    Donald Maass suggests that if you feel that you have too many characters, combining two or more characters into a single character can serve the combined purpose of making the character more multi-faceted and reducing the number of characters in your work.
    KC Trae Becker likes this.
  5. Spider

    Spider Sage

    I think it also depends on your target audience. Young children will be less likely to pay attention to a book with dozens of characters than epic fantasy enthusiasts. In my experience, I've found that children are more likely to be invested in a story if it focuses on one or two characters rather than a whole bunch (but then again, it also depends on the story and how it's being told).
    KC Trae Becker likes this.
  6. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Auror

    KC Trae Becker,

    There is not a simple answer to this, as others have indicated.

    Not only does it depend on the target audience and story to be told, it depends on the skill and techniques employed by the writer. You're referencing remarks by fantasy and writers outside the fantasy genres, which may not accurately reflect your target audience.

    So, rather than reiterate what others have said above...I'll end my two cents here. :)
    KC Trae Becker likes this.
  7. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Are you sure too many character's is the problem?

    Sometimes what people point out as problems are just symptoms, not the actual problem itself. There are times when I read a scene with only three characters, but it's written in such a way that I can't tell who's who. While other times, a scene may be filled with a half-a-dozen characters, but I have no trouble differentiating them.

    The questions BWFoster mentioned are good ones to ask yourself.

    As for number of characters, the story needs as many as it needs. The tricky thing is to determine how many you really need. As mentioned GRRM, I doubt he has a self-imposed upper limit.
    Last edited: Jun 19, 2015
    KC Trae Becker likes this.
  8. X Equestris

    X Equestris Maester

    I think this piece of advice is tinged by the fact that they're a children's book agent. Children might very well have issues keeping track of more than five characters. Unless you're writing for children, I don't think this piece of advice applies.
    KC Trae Becker and Feo Takahari like this.
  9. Tuxedo Mark

    Tuxedo Mark Dreamer

    Personally, I have trouble keeping track of characters, whether on TV or on a novel. I just watched episode 03 of "Game of Thrones" today, and I finally was able to memorize Stark's first name as being Ned. I believe the king is named Robert? There are also these blond guys named Lanister. Other than that, beats me.

    I'm also reading a novel called "The Winter Queen" by Devin Cary. I know the protagonist is named Elissa, and I know the names of a few close associates, but I really wouldn't be able to name all of the players.

    Then again, my mindset while watching/reading tends to go like this: Okay, a bunch of guys doing shit. Ooh, here's the cute girl. What are these guys doing? Oh, well, who cares? Ooh, the cutie again! Yeah, I tend to be female-centric. That still doesn't prevent me from forgetting the name of my favorite GoT character, who I call "white-haired naked girl".

    In my own fiction, I tend to limit stories (or even entire series) to 2 or 3 main characters, and then there are supporting characters that don't have much page time and don't really matter except to support the main characters and/or advance the plot. There's one exception where there's a team of six characters, but, for the most part, I want to keep the number low.
    KC Trae Becker likes this.
  10. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

    My rule of thumb is that one fully developed plot thread can fit two to four characters who both change and are changed by the plot, directing the course of events and undergoing detailed character development. This includes dynamic villains who undergo an arc of their own, but not villains who are essentially static, and not supporting cast.
    KC Trae Becker likes this.
  11. MineOwnKing

    MineOwnKing Maester

    You only need 3 characters per scene.

    1 character going in, 1 character going out, and 1 character going in and out.

    Wait...no, sorry that's inches...

    1 inch going in, 1 inch going out, and 1 inch going in and out.
    KC Trae Becker likes this.
  12. Philster401

    Philster401 Maester

    I'm having the same problem trying to figure out, how many is to many. I have eleven,characters, ten of which travel with the protagonist in my story, which could be considered main, important characters. As of yet I have had problems trying to figure out a way that I can keep that many main characters without readers getting to confused.

    I thought about splitting them up like they did in the Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan but that causes other problems. While keeping them together makes it hard for them to travel unnoticed and to keep them separate in a reader's mind but I have seen it done successfully an example of this is John Flanagan's Brotherband Chronicles.

    Both of the mentioned series are meant for preteen to young adults.
    Last edited: Jun 19, 2015
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  13. Aspasia

    Aspasia Sage

    Apt question. I'm currently writing a scene with thirteen characters who all need to be important later in the story. Juggling them is ... interesting.

    I'd say too many is when the reader starts making lists to keep track of them. They may each be fully developed and growing characters but at some point I just can't remember everyone's names/personalities/pet peeves unless you're constantly bringing it up. I think that the splitting-them-up route and having a bunch of POVs which each has its own "nuclear" group of 4-5 characters is a good route, at least in books I've read. POV jumping is not everyone's favorite though. Take Malazan--when there's such a massive group of characters going I tend to ignore new characters and secondaries because I'm having enough trouble keeping track of the main ones--which becomes a problem later, when Secondary Character #31 suddenly becomes important. Having recently re-read Locke Lamora, I rather like the way Lynch deals with all the secondaries--yeah, if you count them up, there's a bunch of names and personalities thrown at you from all these thieves and bruisers the Main Group comes in contact with, but they have fleeting, colorful, short interactions and then they're on their way. I don't need to worry about them popping up again, so I don't feel overwhelmed trying to remember them.

    A large main cast? I'm currently stuck in that problem. I have two main POVs so I think I'll have my MC interact with the rest in small group settings, until we get to know and care about everyone. But I doubt I can have development in all of my 13 main cast (especially since this is a novella ...), so I'm focusing on developing a few significantly, and we'll see what happens to everyone else. It's a challenge. It helps that all of my characters are intentionally very different and have at least one characteristic that stands out pretty obviously--makes them easier to remember.
    KC Trae Becker likes this.
  14. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

    Even if you have a lot of characters you can have some type of mini arc where you wrap up their small part in the novel and move on without them having to be re-occuring characters throughout the story.
    KC Trae Becker likes this.
  15. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Archmage

    I like when there's alot of characters since it makes the setting come alive for me. Thus I would say that as long as you can keep the characters straight, and the readers can do so, even with an appendix, then its alright.
    KC Trae Becker likes this.
  16. Fyle

    Fyle Inkling

    I think a simple way to gauge this is when you start losing track yourself.
    Noma Galway and KC Trae Becker like this.
  17. Mectojic

    Mectojic Minstrel

    Like others say, you either work hard to differentiate a group of a dozen mains, or split up people into PoVs. Within those PoVs, a small cast of characters around them become much easier to remember.
    Back to GRRM... If you forget who some minor characters are, what do you lose? Maybe just a bit of their extra sideplots. But if you just read casually, you can easily enjoy just following some character's story.
    Sophistication is not achieved by excessive characters, by any means.
    KC Trae Becker likes this.
  18. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    so...I tend to write novels with only three or four main characters. That being said, my WiP has dozens of characters with names and personalities. A few readers have expressed concerns about how large my cast is, but I like it and am keeping it. I guess the point is, it really depends on the type of story and what you're trying to accomplish. Let me give an example:

    I have a main character who lives in the country with her family. It would be weird to read if her father and brothers didn't have names and personalities because they're a large part of her setting and story. So two brothers and a father and her best friend the stable boy join the cast. So does her lover and neighbor. All named and fleshed out. But there are three other named servants who I don't develop. The girl moves into the city. Bring in her new husband, his valet who plays a small part, but how can I not name him? Two new names join the cast. Then, since the husband is a POV character, his antagonist adversaries join the cast of names. Three more names come into the story. But those people are fleshed out and have personalities too. And two of the husband's associates are POV characters. That's two more names as MCs, but they also have a few allies, which brings in a total of five more names as secondary characters. Could I cut them? I don't think so. They are running a sort of spy network. One cannot have a spy network without having people with names and jobs and interacting with them. The husband's family, four more names, are introduced because those people also play important roles in the unfolding of the story.

    Pretty soon, you have dozens of names and the important characters fill the majority of the pages, but you can't simply eliminate people for no reason, or leave them unnamed. For example (I don't remember who wrote this two years ago when I asked about cast size) "Jack, meet my sister. Sister, meet Jack." It doesn't work. You must assume people around your MCs have lives, names, histories with the character, etc. That's how my cast got big, but I don't feel at all like it's bloated beyond the realistic. I make certain that when a character enters a scene after a period of absence, I refresh the reader's mind (or I try to, but sometimes don't do an awesome job), so the reader remembers them.

    One trick I learned (from Phil Overby, who critted a lot of my work), was to make the characters stand out. My antagonist isn't just a priest, he's a corrupt and vile man whose crooked nose epitomizes his sinister and sometimes monstrous behavior patterns. The swordsman I brought in for a single scene wasn't just a guy with a sword, he was a "barely-breeched bravazzo" who rubbed my MC swordsman the wrong way when he offered assistance in the form of personal protection for the MC who won a game of poker and didn't want to pay the young man to see him home safely with "most of his winnings". My prostitute who appeared in one scene to be questioned as to the whereabouts of her boyfriend wasn't just standing there, she came into the scene with a black eye and acted very uneasy as the woman MC I had questioning her tried to press her for answers. Only later in the scene does the MC realize the woman IS hiding something--her son, not the boyfriend, behind a screen and he's been abused too (which plays into the MC's sympathy for children) and the MC leaves the woman alone at that time, telling her to "not bring her work home...for her own safety and the safety of her son."

    I think it's perfectly fine to bring in one-off characters with names and stories, but you have to do it in a memorable and important way. Either it needs to help the reader understand the plot advancement, or it needs to help the reader relate more to the character. Bringing in characters must serve a greater purpose in the story than just entertaining the reader. Secondary and tertiary characters can be really important to the plot. In my example above, those one-off characters aren't mentioned after their respective scenes, but the prostitute confirms that the boyfriend is missing and no one's seen him (he's dead and that's a huge plot point), and the swordsman (during the conversation with my swordsman MC) reveals a place he's seen that something important to the MC happens (I know that sounds cheap and convenient, but I put it in really seamlessly, so it works and is one of my book's best scenes).

    Don't be afraid of having a lot of characters. It's more important that you balance the characters themselves. For example, my chapters are almost like revolving doors. Sometimes characters disappear for four or five chapters, but then they are mentioned or brought back, and I don't feel the need to show them doing unimportant things. That helps keep everything balanced in the story itself. The problem occurs when you have say, twelve named and important characters and you feel compelled to show them doing nothing, because they haven't had "a turn" in a while. I don't bring characters in to give them a turn in the spotlight, I make sure that when they have their turn in the spotlight, they shine bright enough that readers remember them and their actions are plot-pertinent. Creating tension helps to defray the potential risk of writing a large cast. If your characters have memorable scenes, the reader need you to constantly jog their memory. Now that being said, my story has some mystery elements, which I think is conducive to a larger cast than typical fantasy, where you might expect more of a MC adventure with secondary characters in support roles and tertiary characters being rather unimportant. And basically, some readers don't want to read a large cast because it can be confusing. I've confused a fair number of beta readers and again...I like it and i'm keeping it, but I have to accept this story and its large cast won't appeal to everyone. Calculated risks, I suppose.
    KC Trae Becker likes this.
  19. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Someone should probably have had this conversation with Leo Tolstoy. OTOH, maybe it's just as well he didn't have forums.

    There's nothing wrong with a cast of thousands, if you handle it right. You will know you have handled it right when the readers tell you and it's too late to change anything. Such is the life of the writer.
    KC Trae Becker likes this.
  20. cupiscent

    cupiscent Sage

    For my money, it's not so much about number of characters as intensity of relationships between characters. If character x has a father, two brothers, an antagonist and a best friend, wouldn't it be tighter if the antagonist was one of his brothers, and the best friend was the other? Then there's a lot more tension and conflict in both relationships. Similarly, what if character x's father and character y's complicated love interest were the same person? That gives bonus tension between x and y as well.

    In my experience - both of reading and writing - the tighter bound your cast is by interconnecting and multi-faceted relationships, the more interesting the story is.
    Feo Takahari and KC Trae Becker like this.

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