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How many characters is too many?

JBCrowson

Troubadour
I like books with loads of characters where I need to refer to the glossary / character list at least at the beginning to keep track of who's who. John Gwynne, Steven Erikson, George Martin all have loads of characters and large followings. One of the pieces of feedback a beta reader gave me was I introduce too many characters in some chapters. This got me to thinking is there a limit? Or is it like so many other things where "what is needed for the story is enough", and it's more about how / whether you can make it work.
 
The answer is probably ‘whatever is needed for the story’. But you generally have main characters, more tertiary characters and then background figures - trying to cram your story full of main characters might become confusing for the reader.
 

pmmg

Myth Weaver
No limit, but the more that get added, and the more we have to be cognizant that a reader might not be able to follow it. With skill, I am sure it can be worked out.

But...I'd still not want to have so many that its cumbersome to the story and taxing to the reader.

In my Current Book 3, there are a lot of POV characters. Its one of my questions, does it get too confusing as to who is who? But, I have helping me, two previous books that lets them all come into the story slowly. Perhaps, the hardest one to follow is a meeting between five kings. I find in that, I am doubling back on descriptions and who they are more than I would for a single character. I dont want a reader to be going....Um, what is he king of? So, I identify them several time to add clarity.

But...I think the answer will of course be, what is needed for the story, and execute well.
 

Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
I think I saw somewhere that Martin has named two thousand characters in ASOIAF. You can think of that as an extreme upper bounds. I don't know how you'd possibly get in more characters than Martin does, let alone do it successfully. This post talks about a research study on ASOIAF and suggests that each character there has about 150 other characters that they have to think about, which is an important number in social psychology and suggests that it's a very realistic narrative.


But, that's Martin. Most stories have far fewer.

I think most people would agree that it depends on the story. While that's true enough, your story is also a very fluid thing, and if you want to put more or fewer characters in it, there are plenty of ways to make it work, to the point where it's an unhelpful answer.

There is a version of your story that is baseline, follows the formulas, keeps to the advice of "tight" writing, will read well, and loosely, anybody can learn to write it. But also, imagine what Game of Thrones would be if it were written that way, with a first book at 250 pages instead of 694 pages. It's a very different experience, and would be a far more "typical" book. It would have far fewer characters.

So it depends on what you want to do, and on your skill level. As a reference, a quick google search of "How many characters are in a typical novel?" suggests as few as 2 to 5 or as "many" as just 20 to 30. If that's about baseline, what are you shooting for?

Think about it this way: What is it important to you to add to that hypothetical baseline version of your book? Anything you add to it is essentially a skills challenge. Your story and your style have to be compelling enough to support those little extras. By all means keep pushing your story further (you can always cut later), that's how you grow. That's how you develop your style and find a way to stand out. It's also where you have to go your own way, so to speak. How are you going to support extra characters? Can you make those characters interesting enough to be worth including?

If you can do it well, then do it. Show off those narrative skills. That's how you succeed. And if it's not working for you, then you cut back to that baseline.
 

pmmg

Myth Weaver
Damn...had that article ready and waiting ;)

I dont have 2000 characters (my guess is I have 100 or so), but I do think that the more characters that can have aims and swirl around the characters we are following, the more engagement, and surprises, may be had. I'd not thought of it in the terms of the article, but now I am going to look for it.
 
I think 2000 characters for a complex and multilayered fantasy series such as that is not too out of what would be expected, given that we’re not talking about literally 2000 main characters. Sure it’s in the higher end, but given the prose style and the way the overarching story is set up it’s decidedly epic. Tolkien probably has an equally large amount of characters in his work. Scale down to a standalone novel and you might only be looking at top end 50 characters, major, minor and all those sideline figures, you know the grumpy stall holder, or an angry passer by. The answer is still inevitably whatever is needed for your story.
 

ThinkerX

Myth Weaver
Not so much the number of characters as it is how skilled you are at integrating those characters into the story.
 
I think the 2.000 number for GOT is misleading. There are 2.000 named people in GOT. There aren't 2.000 characters in GOT. It might be nitpicking, but for me it's an important difference. In GOT everyone gets a name, even if it's only a walk-on character or a guard standing by the door. That's how you get 2.000 named people. But those aren't characters. A character is someone with agency in the story. It's someone who has at least the basics of their personality developed.

Other than that, you should have as many characters as you need in order to achieve the goal of your story. A story with 1 main viewpoint character and a handful of support characters reads very different from a tale with 10 viewpoint characters. One isn't better than the other. They're just different.

An important consideration to have is how steep do you want the learning curve of your story to be? As, how much does the reader need to learn to understand what's going on. Steven Ericson famously has very steep learning curves. You probably need to read a few of his books and check some wikipedia articles to make sense of it all. Others, like mistborn by Sanderson, have a much shallower learning curve. More characters tends to increase the learning curve.

Something else is that with many characters (especially many viewpoint characters), you want to make them all distinct. There's no point in having 20 characters that all read the same. This is at least part of the brilliance of GOT. Tyrion is very different from Sansa, and from John, and from Deanarys, and so on. They all have a clear label you can stick on them, as well as some extra depth. And they all act true to that nature.
 

JBCrowson

Troubadour
I tend to name a lot of people in my books as well - pretty much anyone who is more than wallpaper. I find stories where the MC only refers to 5 people by name in the whole book just don't ring true. Everyone has a name and most of us use them for pretty much everyone we meet.

I loved the steep learning curve, minimal hand holding of Erikson's books, I would cite them as one of the bigger influences on my work.
 

Naruzeldamaster

Troubadour
Depends on how important the character is to the story. If they're basically a 'red shirt' crew mate then you don't need to give them elaborate backstories and stuff. (unless you want to really annoy readers when you kill them off randomly two chapters later) That said, feel free to make them fun/funny side characters and name them even, just don't let em overshadow the important crew mates.

My current project has a very small cast (mostly 'side' characters) to see if I can tell a good story with that handicap. Without such a limit on cast members I often put way, way too much effort into what would properly register as a 'side' cast. You can afford to do that kind of things in video games, but not so much books.
 

A. E. Lowan

Forum Mom
Leadership
We average 7 - 9 POV characters per book, and we have over 500 named series characters. So far, we've been able to pull it off. But we're gonna need a wiki, eventually. :D
 

ThinkerX

Myth Weaver
What I did with 'Empire' -

Four principal POV characters, nominally part of the same group, but associating with different strata of folks because of differing social status and interests.

Tia is a social climber who gravitates towards the local aristocracy. There are probably five or six named 'secondary associations' with her in each book.

Peter is Tia's knightly protector. He hangs out with fellow knights and soldiers where possible. Probably three to five such for each book, with a couple overlaps for Tia.

Kyle is Tia's carriage driver - and a former peasant drafted into the legions and given rudimentary magical training. Despite all that, he sees himself as a working man, and will usually associate with other working people. In a couple of the books, he has two circles - one of ordinary folks, the other being fellow sorcerers. Between them, he has as many as ten associated characters in a couple of the books.

Rebecca the gypsy is Tia's maid, personal minstrel, and female confidant. As such, she associates with a whole spectrum of characters in the books ranging from fellow gypsies to petty officials to guardsmen to rogues of all stripes - anywhere from three to eight per book, some shared with Tia.

There are also flashback or past life POV chapters, each with a primary POV and up to eight or ten secondary characters.

So... probably twenty-five secondary characters per book, six books, call it about a hundred and fifty named characters.

(I probably will have to make up a full list someday.)
 

Karlin

Minstrel
Can't resist pointing out that the Romance of the Three Kingdoms has over 1,000 characters. With Chinese names, just to make life more interesting for the non-Chinese reader. Then again, The Journey to the West has a few thousand characters. Two books that have stood the test of time.

I think Jin Ping Mei has less characters, probably a few hundred.
 

Azul-din

Troubadour
I've read both kinds of books, or classes of novels if you like, and thinking about this issue I can't help but compare it to a Circus performer who has to keep increasingly numbers of plates spinning on poles. Some can do an incredible number at once, dashing from pole to pole, never letting one slow down and drop. You or I, I suspect, might manage a few but the sheer complexity of the performance, which requires visiting each plate in turn to keep it spinning might defeat us. To drop the metaphor, isn't it up the investment of the writer in each character, making each and every one memorable in some way? Someone, I forget who, said the secret is to give each character what is called in music a light motif , a distinctive hat, walk, turn of phrase, birthmark, even smell (Joanne Harris is good at this).

Sorry if I'm just repeating what others have said, I lack the time at the moment to read them all.
 
Everyone has a name and most of us use them for pretty much everyone we meet.
This is an interesting thing, and probably a lot more personal than you might think. But for me (on a personal level), names aren't important at all. I've spent a lot of time with people whos names I didn't know. Or whoes name I had been told once in passing and then forgot. And I pretty much never use a person's name in a conversation, unless I'm using it to refer to a third person or if I need someone's attention.
 

Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
I think the 2.000 number for GOT is misleading. There are 2.000 named people in GOT. There aren't 2.000 characters in GOT. It might be nitpicking, but for me it's an important difference. In GOT everyone gets a name, even if it's only a walk-on character or a guard standing by the door. That's how you get 2.000 named people. But those aren't characters. A character is someone with agency in the story. It's someone who has at least the basics of their personality developed.

I don't think that's really true, though. That's why I posted that article earlier, the one about all of their interactions. With Martin it's mostly the names of lesser lords. For a modern comparison, it's as if several of the POV characters are like business leaders who have to worry about employees, regular customers, business vendors, the guys who work at the competitor next store, their own family, and so on. Most of these are actual characters playing their small but still important part in that character's story. And in ASOIAF, all of them are constantly scheming to put their own twists on the plot.
 
I don't think that's really true, though. That's why I posted that article earlier, the one about all of their interactions. With Martin it's mostly the names of lesser lords. For a modern comparison, it's as if several of the POV characters are like business leaders who have to worry about employees, regular customers, business vendors, the guys who work at the competitor next store, their own family, and so on. Most of these are actual characters playing their small but still important part in that character's story. And in ASOIAF, all of them are constantly scheming to put their own twists on the plot.
I personally think you're falling for the illusion of depth, not for actual depth of character here.

A quick internet search revealed that there are even more named characters in GOT. One guy found 3.000+ named characters, see the list here: https://www.reddit.com/r/asoiaf/comments/9nwpoe . However, if you scroll through the list, you come across all kinds of random people who got a name. Most probably showed up once or twice maybe.

Even all the named lords scheming is just an illusion of depth. Of course you can write that someone's scheming. However, it has no impact on the story, unless it's done by or to a POV character.

The article you linked seems to agree with that view as far as I can tell, when it writes:
"Even the most predominant characters -- those who tell the story -- average out to have only 150 others to keep track of. This is the same number that the average human brain has evolved to deal with," the university said.
Now, 150 characters is still a lot. It's far more than most books and series manage. But it's not 2.000 or 3.000 characters named characters who actually do stuff. And mentioned as dying of screen, or of having been a king 4.000 years ago and building a wall isn't actually doing something. That's just being part of the scenery.
 

Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
Now, 150 characters is still a lot. It's far more than most books and series manage. But it's not 2.000 or 3.000 characters named characters who actually do stuff. And mentioned as dying of screen, or of having been a king 4.000 years ago and building a wall isn't actually doing something. That's just being part of the scenery.

Have you read A Song of Ice and Fire? There are 24 point of view characters in the series. 150 * 24 = 3,600.
 
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