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How many characters is Too Many?

Chasejxyz

Inkling
Obviously, there is no formula or hard answer, and there's lots of factors like genre, audience, and length, but let's talk about fantasy novels for adults for the sake of this discussion.

I'm on my 5th draft for my epic fantasy and I got some feedback that there's a lot of characters/names to keep track of. Characters that are only in one scene/don't have anything going on are just "the guard," "the shopkeeper", but the butler has a name because it would be weird for him to be in a number of scenes and no one to use it. I am really, really bad with coming up with names for people/things, so I already feel like the number of named characters is low, but that's not how everyone feels.

Does anyone have any advice for gauging when you have too many guys for your reader to keep track of? Is there a way to get away with a minor character being in multiple scenes and there's every reason for the main characters to know their name but they just...don't, for whatever reason?
 

WooHooMan

Auror
Maybe the actual names aren’t intuitive enough?
I sometimes have trouble with names in Russian novels even if there’s only a handful of characters just because I’m not that used to Russian names.

Also, it helps to spread-out character introductions. Like, get the reader used to associating Bob with the name “Bob” before you introduce Bill.
 

Penpilot

Staff
Article Team
For me, I use a bit of repetition and/or reminders to reestablish who characters are if they're minor/insignificant characters that have names but show up in several scenes. I find it also helps if you can give those types of characters a defining characteristic that you can use as a reminder as to who this character is when they show up. These characteristics can be obvious things like physical features like eye color and scars or stuff like scruffy clothing or squeaky armor.

It's like if your POV character is introduced to a guard named Steve in one scene and he has a squeaky elbow joint in his armor when he salutes, one can now used that squeak later on as cue to the reader, reminding them of who they are and when your POV character saw them last.
 

A. E. Lowan

Forum Mom
Leadership
We have about 500 named series characters and we keep track of them all with OneNote to prevent repetitions... and I still catch characters with names that are too similar and need to be changed. In our WIP, for example, we have a Brian and a Bran. Yeah, I really did that. Didn't realize it was even an issue until they popped up in a scene together. Now Bran is named Colm.

My advice for juggling a lot of characters is basically the same as everyone else's is and will be. Keep the introductions spread out as much as you can, and make sure to establish each character with a defining trait as they come in. In our first book we have a meeting of the leadership in our fictional city and there are a lot of new faces thrown at the reader. We get around confusion by introducing them one or two at a time and having them interact with the already established characters in memorable ways. It seems to work pretty well, so we're doing it again for Book 3.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
The correct answer is that you have as many named characters as you need. It seems to vary with the author. In my three published novels and six short stories I have less than 60 named characters. Even the fourth novel I'm working on won't take the number of named characters above 70.

In my view, the only reason for naming a character is if that character is going to play some role in the story. As others have said, the key to introducing named characters is to do so in a way which makes them memorable. Once the characters are in I find that its essential to make their personalities,characteristics and roles consistent, so that when they re-appear in the story the reader recognises them. For many authors means making short notes about them. Being dyslexic I can't easily do that so I have to keep it all in my head.
 

K.S. Crooks

Maester
I would distinguish between main characters, second level characters and everyone else. For main and secondary characters have the minimum number you require for the story. When deciding on a situation for my story I like think, if it were real how many people would be best to be involved. Then I use that number or less. I don't worry about the number of side characters, they often bring a little spice to the story.
 
As Mad Swede said, my approach is only to name a character if they have an impact on the story (whether that be plot or contribution to characterisation).

Mind you, I tend to write fairly long stories - only one (of 4 novels) is under 100k words and two are over 150k. The plots also tend to be complex which (combined with length) means room for quite a lot of characters (character ark?) kicking the story in different directions.

I tell myself that maintaining a sound momentum of narrative will keep the story fresh enough in the reader's mind to remember who the characters are, but the reality is that readers don't always (for whatever reason) pay quite the attention we could wish for.

My other rule is to try to make every character, no matter how minor, equally the star of whatever scene they're in.
 

ShadeZ

Maester
Simple. Too many is one after just enough lol. I have seen people write well over 20 characters with intricate ties to each other and involvements. I personally like to have my mains and their whole life developed out. Brothers, sisters, steps, parents, uncles, aunts, friends, friends who are as family ect. And what their involvement is. For example

Robin Mergazkín Solisheim- The mischevious warrior prince of the dragon slayers. Known for his devil may care additive and his charismatic ways.

Roan Solisheim- Robin's little brother. Known for his upstanding behavior and rigid honor code.

Bree Solisheim- Robin's little sister and Roans twin. Known for similar impish behavior and scarlet hair same as Robin and Aryis.

Aryis Solisheim-Robins deceased older sister heir of Solstic's royal line. Trained her whole life for the crown. Slain by Robin's lover Jharis.

Felix Solisheim- A former dragon slayer killer and king of Solstic. Father of Robin and siblings, husband of Queen Klispíc. Known for his red dagger and shapeshifting powers. Slain by Jharis.

Queen Klispíc- Robin's mortal mother, a fire elf renowned for her beauty, fiery red scarlet hair, a skill as a leader and warrior queen.

Morgan Solisheim- Felix's younger brother. Serves as spymaster. Hates the limelight with a passion. Robin's trainer/mentor, raised Robin after felix and Aryis died.

Jharis- Robin's treacherous mortal lover. Killed Aryis and Felix. Attempted to kill Robin resulting in her death at his hands. Wife of Trevin, friend of Ragnor.

Robin is just one of the mains for referance very few of these characters have any direct impact beyond they are Robin's support/backstory.
 
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