Most Common Writing Mistakes: The Dangers of Character Overload

How many characters does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Only as many as the reader can keep track of at once.

When authors are dealing with large casts of characters—or even just scenes that require the rapid-fire introduction of more than two or three characters—readers sometimes find themselves in grave danger of “character overload.” Usually, I would tell you there’s no such thing as too many good characters. But, in this instance, too many characters can become way yonder too much of a good thing. Let’s take a look at an example:

Gabrielle surveyed the feast spread on her table. If this wasn’t enough for food for everyone who was coming, she was in big trouble. The doorbell rang, and she hurried to answer it. In walked her cousin Bill and his wife Tootsie, their three adorable children Annamarie, Hank, and Bill, Jr. Gabrielle barely had time to greet them before the doorbell rang again and she opened the door to welcome Ella—her cousin twice removed (or was it three times?). Then came Uncle Mutt and Aunt Kitty, her best friends Jeri and Mae and their husbands Andrew and Mike. And that was only the first half of the guests!

This paragraph has introduced us to the unlucky number of thirteen characters. How many of them of are readers likely to remember? A few paragraphs later, no one’s going to remember if Jeri is a twice-removed cousin or a best friend. And yet all these characters seem vital to the story. They must be introduced. So what’s a writer to do?

You have a couple options.

Reevaluate your characters’ necessity.

Do you really need all thirteen characters? Before you write one more jot, tittle, or tilde, stop and evaluate your characters. Is there any chance you could combine two or more of these characters to tighten up your cast and streamline your story? Maybe Jeri and Mae, the two best friends, could be combined into one person, and, to further simplify matters, maybe this best friend is single, eliminating the need for a husband. Maybe cousin Bill and his wife have only one adorable child instead of three.

Spread the introductions over multiple scenes.

Once you’ve got your cast stripped down to optimum fighting weight, evaluate the scene itself. Do all these characters really need to be introduced in this one scene? Could you spread them out over several different scenes to give readers a chance to process each character? Perhaps only cousins Bill and Ella attend Gabrielle’s dinner. Best friend Jeri-Mae can come over after the party to help Gabrielle clean up.

Space the introductions throughout one scene.

If you’ve determined all your characters absolutely must be introduced in this one scene, at least space out their introductions over the course of the scene. Instead of an onslaught at Gabrielle’s door, let the guests trickle in throughout the evening so Gabrielle has a chance to exchange a little dialogue with each guest—thus helping to anchor the characters in the reader’s mind—before moving on to the next one.

Make each character memorable.

Finally, the single most important thing you can do to make characters stick in your reader’s mind—no matter how quickly you introduce them—is to make them memorable. Instead of just rattling off the guest list as they barge into Gabrielle’s house, give each character a memorable trait, action, or line of dialogue to help him stick in the reader’s memory. Maybe Tootsie has dyed her hair crimson, maybe Ella is in tears, maybe Bill, Jr., barges in with the cat dangling by its tail, maybe Uncle Mutt is drunk. Whatever the case, keep in mind that the only characters who belong in your story are the ones worth remembering—so make their entrances unforgettable.

Tell me your opinion: How many characters do you introduce in your first scene?

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic Sign 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 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. Great post! I try to space characters out if I can, and keep it to two or three at the most.

    I find ensuring space between introductions to explain the characters relationships–making them memorable in relation to each other–can yield good results. My upcoming NaNo project has a large cast, and I expect to have to deploy a few of these techniques to keep things straight.

    Happy Sunday!

  2. Ooh, reminds me of a scene in one of my stories where my mc goes to a party and there are LOTS of characters. I may have to go back and read that over…

    thanks 🙂

  3. @Jon: Large casts can be fun – but also tricky. It can take quite a bit of thought and several tries to get it all to work. Have fun with it!

    @Mshatch: Just remember to focus on the needs of the plot – which likely won’t demand *all* the characters be introduced in this one scene – and you’ll be fine.

  4. A wonderful dose of sense! This series is how I originally found your blog and started following you. I love these simple solutions to frustrating and sometimes hard-to-put-your-finger-on problems that you present.

    And I really wish I had this post about a year and a half ago… the first and last time I attempted a party scene. Perhaps it’s time for another go.

  5. I’m glad the series is proving helpful! It’s been a fun one to write.

  6. I love this post. So very valuable! As a reader, nothing irritates me more than multiple characters introduced in the first few pages, or even in the first chapter. A book quickly becomes DNF for me if I have to continually refer back to the first few pages to figure out who is who.

    I once attempted to read a book by a very popular paranormal romance author – was introduced to eight characters in the first three pages, all of whom had similar weirdly spelled names, supernatural powers and angsty personas. I could not, for the life of me, keep them straight. Couldn’t make it past thirty pages.
    As a writer, I introduce a single protagonist, along with perhaps one or two members of the supporting cast who may or may not have names and quite honestly, it’s the small contribution they make to the story and setting, not the name that’s important. Within a few pages – maybe not until the next chapter – I introduce my other protagonist and/or antagonist. I want to reader to get comfortable with my protagonist first and foremost.

  7. One to three characters in a first chapter is just about perfect. I can’t see a good reason *not* to name them, however. Names are the anchors a reader will use to connect personalities with characters. The faster you can affix a name to a character, usually the better.

  8. In my first scene, I introduce my MC and his mother. The father and brother come later in the prologue. Then come three members of a club he tries out for, two kids at school, three bullies, and the final two members of the club. Sounds crowded, but there’s a lot of action and plot development going on between the introductions. And lots of dialogue and (I hope) memorable character traits. Is it effective? Ask me again when the thing is published. 🙂

  9. As long as you’re spacing out the intros, you’re probably okay. A good beta reader will be able to tell you if they feel overloaded.

  10. I hate reading books where I have to keep turning back to remind myself who’s who. The first scene of my WIP introduces four characters.

  11. Whenever I open a book that contains a list of the characters in the front, I always have to wonder if the author’s about to overload me.

  12. I think I have the problem you mentioned. It’s very hard for me because I’m writing a story dealing with a war, and for other reasons, I have to have a large cast. I’m pretty sure when my MCs met a group(which pretty much had to be together), I was probably very guilty of this, and I knew it. After introducing them, and knowing my readers wouldn’t remember the names, I attempted to keep some kind of tag with them, like say their species and their name so people wouldn’t be so confused. Most likely, I’m still going to have to rewrite that scene.

  13. That type of scene is always tough – even in the movies when viewers at least have a visual face to help them remember who’s who. Keeping the characters from overwhelming the reader takes skillful juggling. Sometimes the best thing you can do is limit the cast to only the most important characters and indicate the rest as simply generic “fill-ins.”

  14. Thinking back on my works, I say 2-4. However, I try to make characters memorable rather than just rattling off names one by one. Side characters interact with the main characters. During the interactions, my characters tend to be quite opinionated about their thoughts on each person. By the end of the scene, I want the characters to be more than just a name. I want them to have personalities and features so readers don’t have to think and and wonder who the heck is this person? Where did they come from as they progress through the book.

    If my main character doesn’t interact with a side character or doesn’t have a strong opinion at the time, typically the side character is nameless.

  15. I like keeping it simple (KISS principle) – 2-3 characters a scene (when there are more, some are wallflowers). In my current Mall Demons urban fantasy serial, I have 5 main characters, but so far all five have yet to share a scene together. My sci-fi novel I’m editing has a family of seven as the main characters. But rarely were they all in the same scenes or all have speaking roles at the same time. I get confused easily, so that’s just not gonna happen. Great post.

  16. @Reena: Excellent rule. Naming a character instantly gives him weight within the story. If he’s not important, giving him a name gives the reader false signals about who to pay attention to.

    @Pedro: That’s also a good rule. Except in party scenes or something similar, there’s rarely no good reason to include more than a handful of characters at a time. The conflict is always strongest when it’s focused to a narrow point.

  17. This is important. You could probably cross refer this to the Outlining guidelines too. If you know you’re going to need a large ensemble cast at some point, a good outline will enable you to manage the introductions, making sure they are spaced several pages (or at least paragraphs!) apart and that each one happens in circumstances that communicate something about each character.

    Frankly, Tolkien would have benefited from this advice before writing The Hobbit. I loved that book as a kid, but it took me several attempts to make it past the first chapter: all those irritatingly identical dwarves arriving at Bilbo’s door within minutes of each other!

  18. Absolutely! An outline is indispensable in charting character introductions. And classics such as LOTR are rarely good examples of how to manage character overload, since they were notorious for dumping all the characters, backstories, and settings in the reader’s lap from page one.

  19. I introduce two characters in the initial scene, which starts as a conversation between them. I then trickle the next few characters into the story, one or two at a time, as the main character runs into them. I didn’t really do that intentionally, it just worked out that way. Perhaps I’ll be more deliberate about it in the next novel!

    Thanks for the post.

  20. In both stories I’ve completed, I’ve introduced the hero in the first sentence, and then kept it down to 3 new introductions per paragraph max.
    In the latest story I’m working on, I introduce the 3 main characters in the first few paragraphs, then I plan on slowly adding new characters as they are needed to thicken the plotline.

  21. @Daniel: Sounds like your instincts were right on!

    @Gideon: The rules are a little different in short stories, since the author has to accomplish more in less space, but three intros per paragraph seems a little steep. You might want to run the story by an objective beta reader who can let you know if he was able to keep track of everyone.

  22. My name is Fyodor Dostoyevsky and I know nothink of this character overload, you speak.

  23. Thanks for tonight’s belly laugh! 😀

  24. Great post. I try to limit characters in each scene. Only those of importance receive names or initial introduction. I prefer to keep the core down to a few set characters and if I need more further down the line, I introduce them but keep the information superficial at best.

  25. Characters are like any other information in fiction: they only need to be introduced as they become necessary. If they don’t drive the plot forward, they don’t need to be named in the scene.

  26. I would argue (and really, as a die hard Tolkien fan, I am strongly compelled to) that Tolkien’s introduction of the Dwarves is actually a very good example of spacing introductions throughout one scene and making each characters memorable. Each Dwarf IS distinctive, if you’re paying attention. And Bilbo’s reactions make the scene so comically lively. Of course, in that example the number of the Dwarves is very important. Bilbo wouldn’t have been invited if there hadn’t been 13 Dwarves, an unlucky number.

  27. Great post! I’m also wondering if it’s even needful to make distinctive character traits for characters only involved in a couple of scenes; given those couple of scenes are important ones.

  28. How many characters introduced in the very first scene? ONE. Totals for the book, Protagonists: MCs=2, strong secondaries=2. Antagonists: MCs=2, strong secondaries=2. As a reader I find it most difficult to keep characters straight when they’re introduced with a head-to-toe description, full background, etc. like some kind of literary police lineup. When writing it’s hard not to include everyone’s full BS (Back Story), but it’s necessary to be selective. One book i’m reading has an army of MCs. i’m going to write out a cheat-sheet because I have heard so much about how great it is, but I won’t do that for just any book—even mine.

  29. @Anne: I would always try to give a character, however minor, a distinguishing trait. I want to see the world of the story come to unique life in every detail.

    @Elizabeth: I agree. Make the character memorable from the beginning, then go back and fill in the blanks as necessary.

  30. I typically introduce a single named character in my first scenes. There may unnamed characters present, but generally, I only introduce a single major character (typically my protagonist, but there are some exceptions).

    For example, one of my stories begins with my protagonist patrolling the streets. He accidentally kicks a shingle off the roof and onto a random woman’s head, who starts off the novel by yelling at him. This woman, never named, only serves a single purpose: to introduce the way my protagonist acts and thinks.

    I can see introducing maybe three important characters max in the very first scene, but anymore than that can easily overload the reader, or worse, the writing itself. I always hate to see instances where the writer has introduced so many characters at once (or put so many in one scene) that it becomes impossible to tell them apart without using “(name of character) said” over and over and over and over.

    All writers need to find their personal balance, in my opinion. Really, the number of characters to use at one time depends on the length of the story and the particular plot. Every single story has different requirements in order to reach that magical character balance. It usually takes a bit of trial and error to get it just right, but there’s always a way. =)

    Great post, by the way! xD

  31. I agree: the number of characters introduced in any given scene absolutely depends on the needs of the particular story. Some stories can get away with introducing far more characters than other stories could handle. And, as you say, it also depends greatly on the skill of the individual writers.

  32. I like each character to have their own page or own paragraph (or at least a few sentences), with just a hint of what they look like or what sort of person they are (shy, stuck-up, confident, sassy). I take notes on every book I read (something I started in high school), but still – too many characters too quickly is too confusing.

  33. Taking notes on books (and movies) as you’re reading them is a fabulous exercise. There’s no better way to learn than by absorbing the masters.

  34. The story I’m currently writing has six main character and they are all necessary. I already ‘killed’ the useless character.

  35. As long as they’re necessary, that’s really all that matters.

  36. Anonymous says:

    I ѕaνοuг, cauѕe I ԁisсovered just whаt Ӏ useԁ tο be
    taking a loοk foг. You’ve ended my 4 day long hunt! God Bless you man. Have a nice day. Bye click here

  37. It does help actually, but most of it I have done, reading just a bit of something you do really does help you remember it,thnaks for the info.

  38. It does help actually, but most of it I have done, reading just a bit of something you do really does help you remember it,thnaks for the info.

  39. I think one exception is if the point of the scene is to display chaos. All these people coming in is, in fact chaotic. If none of the characters are important, giving all these names and pretending they are important for the moment is actually a good way to artificially overwhelm the reader just as much as the main character would be in that situation.

    That’s what I felt when I read that scene, anyway… I’m also incredibly introverted, so maybe it’s just me. If the point of that example was chaos and overload, I most certainly related to it. :/

  40. Madeline T says:

    Going back and reading posts I missed. This is a big pet peeve of mine! Worse than introducing too many characters at once, is introducing too many characters who all have rhyming or otherwise similar names. I recently read a fantasy book in which characters were being introduced in droves and their names rhymed! I gave up trying to keep track of who was who in the third chapter and the rest of the book was confusing and sluggish as a result. I personally try to make my characters names and traits as unique from each other as possible to avoid confusion. I’ve found that in real life, I can’t keep track of too many new people at once, so why should I do that to my readers? I try to keep it to two or three at a time if possible.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      For me, the biggie is characters whose names all start with the same letter. I get them confused fast!

  41. Catherine H. says:

    Fortunately, I don’t have this problem in my WIP, but I do struggle with it in short stories that require a large cast. When you only have 6000 words to tell a story, it’s tough to figure out how to introduce all the characters without overwhelming your reader.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Absolute truth! The shorter the story, the greater a challenge this becomes–as do most aspects of writing.

  42. Spaaaaaace!

    I’m in space!

    😀

    Oh wait, um, I mean–

    I definitely try to space out character introductions. The superhero WIP has loads of characters, so of course it is necessary to introduce them in bite-size pieces. (A whole superhero team, each with a family, a personal villain/ rival, one or two key friends, and since a lot of it takes place at a college, also teachers and other students.) I have been known to set up minor introductions in passing, off-scene, a little while before they appear.

    For instance, my protag had just been hit hard with news of nasty rumors going around about her and needed time alone, and the rumors tied into something which had happened to her a few years ago. I needed a way for her to process her thoughts and reveal key details of the experience without going into flashback mode, or just sitting around and TELLING HERSELF what she thought/ felt/ remembered about it. In order to keep the scene flowing I figured another character would be necessary, so I introduced one via text messages. This new girl was checking up on her and had a few misconceptions that my protag quickly cleared away in a short but informative conversation. Later when this girl appeared again, she came forward with an amazing and powerful personality that I believe wouldn’t have been possible without the text conversation.

    I “introduced” another character via off-hand remark by someone else which, given the context of the scene at hand, gave a bit of insight to his personality without any dialog from him. Later there will be a clear basis of understanding for readers at his official appearance. Plus, it (hopefully) fills readers with anticipation waiting for the official introduction.

    As much as possible, if there are already so many characters in play, I try to send one or two away in order to highlight the rest. In fact, many times you won’t see the entire superhero team arrive on scene. After all, how realistic is it for a teacher and five students to disappear all at the same time that six superheros show up in a fight– especially given the fact that all six civs sometimes hang out with the cop in charge of said superhero group, whose job will be in danger if their identities are found out?

    At first I was resistant to having such a large cast, but honestly the challenge of creating each one to leave an impact became a really fun game to me, sort of like a puzzle. 🙂

  43. And oh yeah, you totally stole that introduction from Tolkien… with Bippin and Boppin and Froggin and Noggin and Jazzin and Spazzin and WHY OH WHY DID THERE HAVE TO BE TWELVE? And why were they color coded? It certainly didn’t help ME to tell them apart!

    And could someone please tell me why in the name of all holy did they have the SAME names but only one letter apart? Were they all fathered by George Foreman??

Speak Your Mind

*