Does Your Story Have Too Many Characters?

Does Your Story Have Too Many Characters?

This week’s video goes over a few of the problems of too many characters and how you can decide the right number for your story.

Video Transcript:

For most of us, our characters are the reason we start writing. There’s a voice or a face in our heads and we have to get it out on paper just to discover what it’s all about. So we start writing, and every time the plot takes a new turn, we add another character. And sometimes that character leads to another and another and another. But how do you know when enough’s enough? In short, how many characters are too many?

It would be nice if I could tell you every book should have twenty-seven characters, no more, no less. But, of course, that’s not the way it works. Every author has to make decisions about the number of characters needed for his story. But, in making that decision, it’s important you understand why too many characters can be a bad thing. Real quick, let’s go over just a couple of the problems of too many characters. To begin with, we have the simple fact of reader confusion, which we’ve talked about quite a bit in recent posts. The more characters you have, the more likely readers will forget who’s who and get confused. Likewise, the more characters you have, the less likely you’ll be able to appropriately flesh them all out. Then there’s all the issue of fragmenting your plot. If you try to juggle your plot, subplots, and themes among too many characters, you can end up stretching all three way too thin.

So take a look at your cast of characters and evaluate the purpose of each person in your story. How many of these characters are going play a part in the climax? And, conversely, how many are going to end up as loose ends to be tied off? With that in mind, are there any characters you can combine? Maybe the wise uncle and the cop next door could be the same person. There’s also the painful matter of realizing some characters serve no useful purpose and should be deleted altogether for the good of the book. Lush casts are fun for both authors and readers, but the more streamlined your cast, the tighter and more powerful your story is likely to be.

Tell me your opinion: Have you evaluated the number of characters in your story lately?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and 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. Then there’s the George R. R. Martin method: every single person is treated and introduced similarily to main characters (as far as getting named, described, and having a fleshed-out backstory), but the “main” characters are defined as having chapters from their perspective. It leads to frequent confusion, but Martin handles it by not making it necessarily important if the reader remembers that the woman who was just executed was so-and-so’s maid two books ago.

    But, if the reader does remember, it makes it that much more rewarding, and the world feel that much more real. Although, among the obsessive readers (me, for instance), it does breed a kind of paranoia to remember each and every person, just in case they show up again later, but we tend to find that more fun than tedious.

  2. I’ve learned to be careful about adding characters, because not only is it confusing for the reader to have a huge cast, but it’s also pretty difficult for the writer to not only keep up with the characters, but to flesh them out realistically (as you said). Whenever I’m tempted to add a character for the sake of adding a character, I pause and ask myself what their purpose would be. If I can’t think of viable justification for creating them, they don’t make the page.

  3. Not a problem as I write for 9+ mainly and they would be too confused if I included too many people. :0)

  4. I had to deal with this in my 2010 NaNo. I had 12 demigods and even after I divided them into greater and lesser, it was way too many. In fact, I had one walk off a cliff because I had to reduce the numbers.

  5. @Sam: The bigger the book (and, by extension, the series), the more characters are possible. Fantasies and epic historicals, in particular, often flourish with large casts. If you’re going this route, a list of characters in the front of the book will never go amiss with readers. I know I’m always thankful for them.

    @Ava: I learned the hard way myself about too many characters. When you reach the climax and have to figure out to how to weave in the subplots of a couple dozen characters, you realize pretty quickly than simplicity is best!

    @Carole: You’re the one who should be teaching all the rest of us!

  6. @Galadriel: Hah! That’s one way to do it.

  7. I tend to run at 4-5 main characters.. I’ll also introduce some minor characters, but the story can usually survive without their help.
    Thnx for some clarifying points though. 😀

  8. So much of this depends on execution. I couldn’t stand A Song of Ice and Fire because he just kept adding main characters. I couldn’t get myself to care about most of them and reading whole chapters from these new points of view was torture.

    On the other hand, I’m a huge fan of the anime series Bleach which focuses on one main character (Ichigo Kurosaki) but has a gigantic cast of supporting characters of varying importance to the story. And when I say gigantic I mean gigantic. There’s probably 100+ characters introduced over the course of the series, each one memorable. I could probably name at least 20 off hand that I love to death that keep me watching.

    Like everything, it all depends on the story. 🙂

  9. @Gideon: As I said in the video, there really is no perfect number of characters. Every story’s demands and capabilities will be different. One story may suffer under two dozen characters; another may thrive.

    @Sarah: Dickens is another master of multiple characters. Every one of his books was teeming with people. No character was a walk-on; they all had in-depth backstories and personalities. But he made them work just because they were all so unique and memorable.

  10. Just kill them off, KM. Problem solved.

    (jk)

    : ) Beth

  11. Ding! Give the lady a prize! 😀

  12. I tend to have between 3-6 characters that play major roles in the story, not including the MC from whose POV I’m writing. One thing I’ve realized about the novel drafts I’ve completed that have not been *ahem* very good was because I had characters that were there as setting and were just dropped in out of nowhere and weren’t fleshed out properly. It’s all in execution, eh?

  13. I am writing a YA story now that is about a group of teens (6 in all) but not all will have major roles in the series.

    I do find it challenging to write dialogue for all six at times! But they will each play an important role in the climax.

    Great post!

  14. @Tomorrow: Absolutely, all about execution. As I said, lush casts can be a ton of fun, but only if the author has the space and ability to pull it off within the strictures of his story.

    @Ruth: Multi-character dialogue scenes among four or more characters can be tough. I actually just wrote a post on this a few weeks ago, which you might enjoy if you haven’t already seen it.

  15. I recently started a thriller and within 50 pages there were over 50 characters, named. Even though I had taken notes (I take notes on all books I read), I was still confused. I deleted the book from the Kindle. You can also use “clerk,” “receptionist,” “tailor,” instead of naming every character. I love your idea of how will each character be in the climax – excellent advice.

  16. Obviously, not *all* characters will be present in the climax. The walk-ons won’t appear later, and not even all of the major characters have to be present. But in trying to figure out which characters are really necessary, it’s valuable to look ahead and try to figure how they will (or won’t) figure in the big scenes.

  17. I started with too many characters because I wanted my protagonist to come from a big family. It took a lot of pounding by my crit peeps to get down to three brothers, each of whom serves a different purpose. Now I adopt a policy of avoiding naming anybody unless its awkward not to or I know they need to be a “character.”

  18. When I was a kid I always wondered why movie and book characters always came from small families. Now I know!

  19. Great post, as always. I sometimes find that characters arrive of their own accord. Some can be quite pushy about being involved! My rule is to only include characters who have a part to play in the story – no matter how small. I think that’s the key question: what pivotal part (no matter how small) does each character play? Do they say or do something that turns the plot in some way or precipitates action by a main character? It’s fun to have interesting/amusing characters trooping through the pages, but an army can bog down the story. It’s like choosing what details to include if your story has historical or heavily researched details (mine!). I ask myself: what is absolutely essential for my characters to know/learn in order to survive. Ruthless, but effective.

  20. Another thing to keep in mind in deciding whether or not a character is necessary to the story is figuring out whether he appropriately foreshadows his own involvement. If a character is only going to appear in one scene, we have to be careful not to inappropriately telegraph his importance to the reader by making them expect him to reappear and play a bigger role later on.

  21. I know I dislike starting a book and having dozens of characters thrown at me in the first two chapters. Yes – we do interact with many people in real life, but we don’t have to meet them all at one. My least favourite is when this is a Russian novel, with long names, hard to remember and pronounce, and then the sudden introduction of yet another name for a person – it’s like a nickname. A character list at the start does help in this case, but also fills me with dread if it’s too long.
    I am trying to keep the character count down in my own novels, some carry on from Book 1 to 2, some don’t. I also try to reuse where I can – it’s a small town so chatty Bob in the pub can also be helpful Bob in the park.

  22. The great thing about combining chatty Bob and helpful Bob is that you not only get to economize on characters, you also get to spend more time fleshing out the one character.

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