How Many Characters Should You Include in Your Story

How Many Characters Should You Include in Your Story?

Here’s a question you’d think would have no solid answer: How many characters should your story have? Every story is different. Some are multi-generational epics that need a cast of hundreds (or thousands if you’re like G.R.R. Martin and keep killing everybody off). Others may need only a handful of actors (Robinson Crusoe). Surely, there’s no rule that applies to every story.

But, as it turns out, there is. Or, at least, sort of.

What it all comes down to is types of character. Last week, we spoke about fundamental character archetypes, but what we’re talking about now digs down even deeper to reach the foundation of the personal forces that make a story work.

The Only Three Characters Your Story Needs

Plot revolves around conflict—which then informs theme. That, right there, is the essence of story. To create that little equation most stories are going to require three different types of character.

1. Protagonist.

As we discussed last week in regards to archetypes, your protagonist’s role is a no-brainer. He engages readers; he moves the plot forward. His goals are the whole point of the story.

2. Antagonist.

Same goes for the antagonist (whether or not he’s human). He opposes the protagonist’s goals and creates the conflict. Between the two of them, you have your plot.

3. Relationship Character.

But what about theme? This is where all your other character archetypes—and particularly the sidekick and love interest—show their influence upon your story. As characters who are comparatively uninvolved in the conflict, they represent the moral absolute within the story, against which the protagonist and antagonist will both be measured.

So that’s it! That’s all you need. If you have these three characters, you have all you require for a story.

Hold Up! What About All Those Other Characters?

Okay, so I can hear the howls of dissent already. You’re thinking, What about all the other characters in my story? And not just my story, but every famous and awesome book ever written?

After all, the vast majority of books are going to feature far more than three characters. Right?

Actually, no. (*recommence howling*)

Here’s the thing: every legitimate character within your story is going to fill one of these three roles. You’ll have your protagonist, your antagonist, and your primary relationship characters—but you’ll also have a varying number of minor characters who will stand in as proxies for these roles throughout your story.

The Three Driving Forces of Story

The larger context of the overall moral truth presented in your story will be driven by these three primary character forces. My editor CathiLyn Dyck puts it this way:

…there are three pressures in story: The protag’s goal and values, the antag’s goal and values, and the greater truth (moral premise or theme) of the story, which is carried by the relationship character, communicated to the protag, and rejected by the antag.

Every character in your story will fit one of those definitions. To accomplish their goals in specific scenes, protagonists may share the limelight with co-protagonists or send emissaries. The main antagonist may recruit henchmen to do his dirty work—or the antagonistic force may be (and probably will) divided among many different antagonists, of varying levels of antagonism. And the protagonist (and antagonist) will likely have important relationships with several characters, all of whom help him advance his character arc toward a better understanding (or rejection) of the moral premise.

So How Many Characters Should You Really Have in Your Story?

This info is all interesting enough, particularly if you like story theory (and if you’re author, why wouldn’t you?). But let’s talk about how to apply this to figuring out how many actual characters should be in your story.

The bottom line is this: if any one of your characters doesn’t somehow fulfill one of these three roles, he’s probably dead weight.

The second bottom line is this: if one of your proxy characters is doing work, in any given scene, that could just as easily be done by your main protagonist, antagonist, or relationship character, then he’s almost certainly dead weight.

Nothing wrong with opulent casts (especially if you’re going to kill many of them off), but, as a rule of thumb, keep in mind that every character needs to bring something to the story. If his role could be filled by an already existing character, that’s a clear sign he should be cut.

Once you realize the underlying function of every character in a story you will gain a clearer vision of how to streamline your cast for maximum efficiency—and, even more importantly, how to guide each character to his full potential within the constraints of the plot.

Tell me your opinion: How many main characters are in your story?

How Many Characters Should You Include in Your Story

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar picSign up to receive K.M. Weiland's monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.
Email:
About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Eep, I’ve got six main characters in my current fantasy novel. The protagonist serves as the antagonist to the other five, and another one serves as the antagonist to the presumed protagonist. I guess I’ve melted types together for each character depending on their relationship with the other characters. I have over-arching antagonistic forces (man vs. self, man vs. animal, and man vs. supernatural) to help balance with the main cast, so I think I should be alright in terms of having all three types of characters. They simply aren’t as clear-cut in this novel as they may be in other novels, and I sometimes wonder if I’ve bitten ff more than I can chew in regards to the sheer volume of classifications of characters (types and archetypes).

    I call them all “main characters” because they each get approximately the same amount of book time and highlight. In my head, I actually call them my ensemble. I’m wondering if that actually classifies them as “main characters,” though. What constitutes a main character and how are minor characters different from them? Is it the number and/or length of appearances in the book?

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Let’s look at this as a difference between “main” characters and “major” characters. Major characters (unlike “minor” characters) are those who are vital to the plot and who probably are on stage for the majority of the book; they may or may not have POV scenes. But you’re right in thinking that a major character isn’t necessarily going to be a main character. The bottom line in determining your story’s protagonist is figuring out which character is most affected (and probably changed) by the moral premise (which, translated, is basically the theme) of your story. The protagonist’s character will define the theme. Find that character and you’ve found your main character, apart from all other considerations.

      For example, consider Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff seems more like an antagonist than a protagonist. But it is his (negative) character arc that defines the story, which makes him unarguably the main and most important character.

      • Ahh, that makes more sense. I’ve got some figuring out to do, since, at the moment, all six characters are vital to the theme. Having six main characters seems a bit much.

        Thank you! This post has been super helpful.

  2. I absolutely love your advice! As someone who wants to write a book, one of the most important question that arises is the number of characters to include in it. Too many characters make the book look crowded, and too less make it shallow- all of this actually depends on the story.
    The story I am trying to structure write now has the protagonist and the relationship character, I need to think of the antagonist.

    Thanks again for this lovely column.

    Regards,
    S.R.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Once we understand the purpose of each character within a story, we’re able to do a much better job of deciding which characters are truly beneficial to the plot.

  3. Yep, it’s true. You only need as many characters as a story calls for. But usually three doesn’t cut it. I tend to use four to ten main characters and then stick some secondary characters in, and then pile dozens of those “prop” characters (Like those crowds rampaging or a waitress) in.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      The number three isn’t a bottom line. Almost all stories will require more than one character to share the various roles.

  4. Thanks for the article K.M. I never really thought about this relationship character before. It seems like the protagonist is on the side of good and upholds what is right. You’ve got me thinking and I need an example to understand this idea. Maybe Lee Child’s novels make a clear example. His Jack Reacher character often kills criminals in situations where a normal person would turn them over to the police. Jack the protagonist is not a relationship character. That has to be left to the regular working people he is out to protect. I’m definitely going to be looking for these three characters in the next novel I read. Thanks again. Great article.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      I haven’t read Child’s books, so I can’t tell you if you’re right (although it sounds likely). But to use another example, in Star Wars, Luke would be the main character and Obi-Wan and the droids would be relationship characters. Han and Leia are also relationship characters, at least in the first movie, although they take on more main character roles in the second film.

  5. How many main characters in my current novel? Just one. I learned that lesson on a thriller I did. My novels always have huge casts, and I had four main characters. They shared almost equal time. When it came time to write the synopsis and query, I could not effectively summarize the story within the required word limitations because all four were so tied up in what the story was about. Each time I mentioned a new character, it took up additional words that needed to go to the story.

    But my book has three antagonists, a sidekick, and about twenty other characters. I wouldn’t call the others necessarily relationship characters. They’re more of story characters — what the story itself needs in the setting it is. Twenty might sound like a lot, but each one has their specific role in the story, and to delete one would mean a major change in the story that would affect other characters.

    If you want to know if you have too many characters, here are some tips: 1) Beta readers tell you they need a scorecard to remember who’s who. 2) You suddenly realize you’re having a hard time giving enough page time to one of the characters.

    Also, with a large cast, you should still start with no more than 3 characters. It’s hard for the reader to get into the story in the first chapter if you throw 11 names at him, even if the characters are only mentioned. The reader starts focusing on remember who’s who and not on the story.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      The moment we create a character the reader doesn’t care about is the moment we’ve created an extraneous character. That’s the bottom line.

      • Christine Phariss-Williams says:

        Great!! This says so much in a nutshell! Boring characters just get in the way, like Tom on Downton Abbey. He was interesting at first, but he has dried up and shriveled since Sybil’s death.

  6. Kat Laytham says:

    Excellent article.

  7. I also like how some authors have characters that bring value to the story and kill them off. Hence, the surprise. Of course since the character had value in life they do in death as well.

    Such as Ned Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire. His death was a surprise… at least for me and it effected the story.

    In most stories you read or watch, when a character dies the story just keeps on as though the character never lived in the first place.

    Great post, K.M. http://www.andrecruz.net

  8. I try to use as few major characters as possible so things don’t get too confusing. Nothing worse than not knowing whose story it’s supposed to be. Something a skilled writer can do but I find very hard once there’s more than half a dozen people in a scene.

    mood
    Moody Writing

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Smart approach. As a reader, I always appreciate it when an author has a tight and obviously well-planned cast.

  9. In “Reprisal”, I have six main characters. My super-human series will have lots of continuing characters, but only 5 characters that are “main” in the sense that they have a lot of screen time.

  10. You are heaven sent!

  11. My first book “A Train Called Forgiveness” based on my own past of being a childhood victim in a cult only has two characters and lots of smaller characters and it seems to work well.

  12. To some degree, I think the size of the cast in a book is related not just to the nature of the story, but to the nature of the writer. As you rightly say, some narratives are sprawling affairs, set in numerous locations, with huge numbers of characters. Only a certain kind of writer should take up such a project. And probably writers who want to develop their characters in depth should avoid these kinds of projects.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Good point. The thing about sprawling casts (speaking generally) is that they tend to make writers spread out their characterizing skills as well. So, instead of concentrating all the characterization onto a few characters, the characteristics get diluted among many personalities.

  13. I agree. If they are not going something useful or it is natural that they are there (like your main character living with his or her family) even if they are not a big part of the plot it should be acknowledged that they exist, to make the story realistic. Usually its not 100s though. Lets not forget if they are get their important moment you have to actually name them and give them their own voice.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sometimes there’s a fine line between creating verisimilitude by populating a world – and over-populating it with unnecessary characters. As always, the final decision depends on the individual story.

  14. Declan Brannigan says:

    I have a question: My story includes many characters on many worlds, but mostly follows the story of a single soldier and his team. Is it OK to include these random characters for just one chapter if they witness something significant to the story?

    Great article, by the way.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Journey stories often feature a revolving cast, since the setting is always changing, and that’s fine. However, it’s still important to keep your cast streamlined by evaluating the true purpose of each character. Fewer characters means more room and time to flesh out those you do have.

  15. Carrie Wilson says:

    Great article!!

    In my story, I have a character that is 13, and so needs his mother around because, well, she’s his mother. But she doesn’t really have a purpose other than being there for him as his mom. Other than that, she seems unnecessary, but I don’t know what to do with her. Any thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If the mother isn’t crucial the story and you can’t think of a good way to include her, then don’t feel bad for having her remain mostly in the background. A good example is the movie adaptation of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. In it, the little boy’s mother is given a few scenes, but she’s never developed as a character because the story simply isn’t about her.

      • Carrie Wilson says:

        Thanks for your input! :)

        Can it still work the same way if my MC is doing a lot of traveling (to different countries and such)?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Definitely. Another example that comes to mind is the classic children’s story Eloise at the Plaza, in which the mother is always a shadowy figure in the background, because she travels so much. It would work the other way around as well, if the child were the one traveling.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Here’s a question you’d think would have no solid answer: How many characters should your story have? Every story is different. Some are multi-generational epics that need a cast of hundreds (or thousands if you’re like G.R.R. Martin and keep killing everybody off). Others may need only a handful of actors (Robinson Crusoe). Surely, there’s no rule that applies to every story. But, as it turns out, there is. Or, at least, sort of. What it all comes down to is types of character.  […]

  2. […] Helping Writers Become Authors -  How many characters should I include? […]

  3. […] in an easy-to-understand manner. Take a gander if you need some explanation on how it works. How Many Character Should You Include In Your Story? gives helpful insight about what is needed by the cast of characters. These are important points to […]

Speak Your Mind

*