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.
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.
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.