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

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  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.

    • Thank you for this article as well as all your hugely helpful podcasts and free info! (I did buy your book, however, ahem. Gotta support.)

      I’m suddenly rule-stumped: I”m preparing my long thought out story for NaNo–a women’s modern day romantic fiction (not trashy!) and still the sole viewer in my private movie theater, munching popcorn and watching my characters do their thing. My protagonist is the female, the other major main character her male love interest. He just had a Major Breakdown–a moving and readable, relateable, life changing breakdown. So although this breakdown opens her closed off heart to him, he is currently upstaging her since her climax/turning point isn’t as exciting. (At least not yet.)

      Am I breaking a major rule of fiction? Thank you!

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Not necessarily, especially if the male character has his own POV/narrative thread and/or the female character is an active participate in causing his breakdown or helping him overcome it. But you definitely don’t your protagonist to be a passive observer for long.

        • Oh thank you! That is good news. I suddenly wasn’t certain if in “light fiction” there should be a parallel narrative. But I better ramp up the stakes for her. Appreciate the feedback. (-:

  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.


    • 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.

      • How do we know what readers think of our characters before the book is published? How to tell if they care for some characters but not for others? How to decide if a character is extraneous?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          First question you need to ask and answer is always: Do *you* love this character? You can only write out of your own passion for a character.

  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.

  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.

    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.

      • Christine Phariss-Williams says

        This is amazing! Best and clearest writing instruction I’ve ever seen! THANKS!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Thanks for stopping by! I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

          • I have a question. Im having a problem figuring out if I should have a story with 3 different protagonists (Who are all Very unique), or if I should focus on my personal favorite character. What do you think ?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            It really depends on the story. But I will say that the longer I write, the more inclined I am toward fewer POV characters. Doing so tightens the narrative and makes the overall connection between the reader and that one character much more intimate.

          • Anthony Williams says

            Thanks! Sorry about this being 4 months late, but to be honest I doubted you’d actually answer my question. You really surprised me, and I thank you for it. I now know who to focus on, thanks to your brilliant advice!!! God Bless

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            No problem! Glad to be of help. 🙂

  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.

  16. Julian Weisberg says

    I really liked this article, it made a ton of sense to me!

    Then I realized I had a major problem with my own story. The plot is that a bunch of teenagers join a reality show to compete for a million dollars. Problem is, there are 24 teenagers along with the host of the show. I need to keep all the characters (even though the teenagers are split into three teams and the team that loses a challenge must boot someone off the team, therefore eliminating characters) as the story is more character driven. I would I say I have a main protagonist, but I’m still trying to figure out how to write it, any thoughts?

  17. Brian Johnston says

    Hey, how are you? Just wanted to say reading your article really helped and made me stop in a good way and rethink where I am. See that’s always been a problem when I write a story whether it was for school, a novel or a screenplay I’m writing. My problem was always including too many characters that I considered main characters and were grouped together whether on an adventure, in the army, on a space ship, whatever.

    Now this article made me understand what’s really needed for characters but I still come asking for advice. See my story is a fantasy world adventure story, it’s about a young author who is in a writing slump and deciding whether he should continue with his current series or move onto another project. When he reads one of his books, he in a way dreams about the imaginary world he created when he was a kid, having adventures with creatures and pieces of the world he created using his imagination, doing what any kid with imagination does, he applies his imagination stories to his book series.

    This time around he needs to help restore good in the world that is being corrupted by darkness and death from the villain and his accomplices. He defeated him once but must rediscover who he was and what is missing or why this world means so much to him when he wrote his novels about the past adventures he had as a child.

    Now this story includes various creatures, there’s talking anthropomorphic animals who are his friends, elves, dwarfs, werewolves, witches, goblins, good and evil queens, a dark villain, various other mythological creatures. You get the idea. Now I tried going through all the characters, grouped them as main characters, secondary characters and minor characters.

    Now I have characters that are only there for like a scene, others come back and forth but aren’t with the main group, the villain, along with it’s evil accomplices and his personal monsters, same with a good white queen and her good accomplices, then I have the main character who is the author and his group of companions. Now my questions for this is what sections do I place these groups in? And how do I shrink the group that accompanies him on his journey? Do I go through their traits, maybe combine a character, decide what each brings to the table, whether they should be going with him or not. Thanks, anyway you can help me will be appreciative. Look forward to hearing from you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s always going to depend on how important any of these characters are to the plot. Go through your list of characters and consider what the story would be like if you pulled them. Could a different character assume their story responsibilities? If not, they stay. If so, then you know you which characters can be cut or combined.

      • Brian Johnston says

        Hey, thanks that’s very sound and helpful advice, I’m going to try it. Also on a more personal note, do you want to get in contact with each other off this website? If I’m away from my computer but need to ask a question or just find out a little more about you and therefore you find a little bit more about me. We could exchange emails, phone numbers, just talk about this or anything, what do you say? Are you interested?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I’m always happy to answer writing-related questions. You can contact me, via email, through the Contact form.

  18. This makes me somewhat curious (warning I’m about to throw out all artistic integrity off a plank, don’t hurt me), if there is statistical data about how many characters New York Best Seller’s have on average.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve never seen any figures – but if you ever find any, I’d definitely be interested in seeing them!

  19. Brian Johnston says

    Will do but where exactly is the contact form? Is it where to post comments? If not where? Also this advice, does it only apply to novel or can you apply to a screenplay? And I can’t just call you out of the blue, talk about stuff outside of writing but also get some inside tips over the phone instead of online and just get to know more about you. I can’t help it, the pictures I see of you on this website just fascinate me, you’re very attractive in my opinion. Not to mention intelligent and talented when it comes to this field, which is no easy task sometimes. Beauty and brains, perfect combination of any woman I must say. Well, look forward to hearing from you

  20. I have a story where the main character has seven siblings and then there are more characters as well, is this too much.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There’s never any absolute rule on how many characters you should include, but my first instinct is that, yes, this is probably too many characters. I would suggest evaluating each character and considering what would happen to the plot if you pulled each one. If not much changes, then you can probably safely delete that person.

  21. My second story includes six characters. There is one protagonist, one helping character, one obvious antagonist and two of the three remaining are somewhat hidden antagonists. Hidden antagonists meaning they complicated the story and add conflict in ways that aren’t completely obvious. Does that seem like too much? Or does it seem like too little?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Six characters is a nice-sized cast – not too big, not too little. As long as each character has an important role to play in the story, you should be fine.

  22. Thank you so much for a very helpful website!

    I am working on a story from a restaurant environment. The protagonist slowly has his morals eaten away by the staff and customers. As such, there is no one single antagonist. However, the combination of all external factors affects the protagonist towards his moral and physical collapse. There are a lot of characters, but they almost all disappear, leaving the protagonist with a sense of isolation and loneliness. Does it make sense to have the role of the antagonist being the sum of so many persons in the cast?

  23. In trying to characterize my six or seven leads of my young adult fiction novel into the three categories, here is the breakdown: 2 protagonists, 3 relationship characters, and 2 antagonists. Is this unusual? I’m realizing that the the two antagonists do the majority of their antagonizing in only one half of the book each. They sort of switch off as the protagonists face new problems. Is this a weak approach? And do I have too many relationship characters?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Here’s the thing about the number of characters: it’s not necessarily *how* many, but whether or not each character is fulfilling a valuable role. In regard to the relationship characters, that number is fine, as long as each character is representing a different aspect of a relationship that reflects upon the overall theme in some important way.

      As for the antagonists, fragmenting the plot between them is more likely than not to be problematic. Unless the first antagonist is somehow leading up to or preparing the way for the bigger and badder second (and thus foreshadowing him), you’re likely to end up with two halves of conflict that don’t match up seamlessly.

      • Robintvale (Jessica) says

        Whispers: Boy I’ll say. I have two antoganists in my story and know I need to save Kar for another book as he’s not Maxwell. (Maxwell gets things moving.) Kar is awesome though a… OOH what if I murge Kar and Maxwell into one character? Would that work?

  24. I’m creating a film. What are the steps to creating the story? I have the plot done, but not the characters or dialogue/scripts. I’m barely planning the scenes in the film. However, it’s somewhat similar to create a story in a film rather than a book. Can you assist me in what I plan first and so on and so forth?

  25. I have about three major characters, my relastionship character, my antagnoist, and my main. I’m really excited about this book because this will be the first large book I’ve ever completed since my sixty page book in seventh grade. I’m currently in tenth grade and this story is breaking 130 pages, hopefully within another ten chapters I can finish. I don’t think I have too many characters, but I’m not really sure.

  26. Hi there. I really enjoy your blog. It’s so helpful. I have seven main protagonists. My story idea is based on a real life ‘theory’ so in order for it to work I have to have the 7 as it’s the whole point of the story. I tried Omniscient POV and got some professional feed back ( I was basically head hopping) and it was suggested I write it through the eyes of only one or two POV. However, each of the 7 have their own stuff that they have to overcome so it may belittle each individual character if it is seen through only the eyes of 2 of them. I still see it as a sort of fantasy fable done in Omniscient but i have been told to avoid this way of writing for YA lit as it isn’t popular and it means you tend to ‘tell’ rather than show. I am wondering whether to split up the characters into 3 for one book and possibly 4 for the next and the third book would be them coming together but this frightens me because I will have to spread the story (so it makes sense) over 3 books instead of one (which is lovely and neat) and of course each book has to be stand alone. Really stuck! It took me 2 years to write my book so I am nervous to start again/re-write without making sure I have chosen the right way to go re POV and the 7 protagonists.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Although I generally recommend fewer POVs rather than more, it’s possible to use seven distinct POVs to weave them throughout the story. Also, I wouldn’t necessarily be afraid of splitting the book into sequels–they’re very popular right now! Just make sure each book is whole unto itself, when it comes to important structural considerations.

  27. I am wondering. Where would a co-protagonist or a main character beside the main protagonist fit into this? So would the co-protagonist/main character be a relationship character role or could it be a protagonist role as well like the main protagonist as well?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Generally, a co-protagonist *will* function as relationship character (or an antagonist) for the other protagonist. But in regard to the storyform, the co-protagonist is essentially the protagonist of his own story within the overarching book. Regardless of how he plays into the other protagonist’s story, his own story will still require these archetypal relationships.

  28. Katie Suratt says

    Hi there!

    Your post reassures me that I’m not nuts for only having three characters in my story (except for characters who died long before the story begins). I read somewhere that having only two characters in a novel is a bad idea, so I wasn’t sure if having three was enough!

    I’d like to make sure that my three characters fit the three main roles that you described.

    My protagonist is a free-spirited female artist who takes a tour of an old house in Germany and meets the ghost of a young man who was murdered by his brother. They form a tentative friendship and work together to solve the reason for the ghost’s murder (which is why he’s a ghost–he doesn’t know why he was murdered). I’m guessing that my ghost is the relationship character because he is the reason for the action of the story?

    The antagonist is the man who owns the house and is “helping” the protagonist to solve the mystery. He is the descendant of the brother who murdered the ghost (and he can’t see ghosts, so he doesn’t consciously know that the ghost exists). “Helping” the artist solve the mystery is a fun game to him because he can keep changing details and mess with her mind, and also, it keeps her coming back to the house.

    Do I have that right as far as characters go? I think that should be enough characters, but then again, I also keep getting stuck as to what needs to happen next in the plot, and that makes me wonder if I don’t have enough characters to keep things interesting. I want there to be this weird psychological triangle between them because the antagonist is subconsciously aware of the ghost’s existence (and that antagonizes him). It seems to me that more characters would make things too complicated.

    Anyways, thank you for the post!

  29. Wendy Schmidt says

    One of the reasons I loved films like Gosford Park and Altman films in general is because they seem far more real to me. People talk over each other, there are several situations going on at the same time but they relate to one another. No, it’s not the traditional way of doing a story or film. But, damn, it’s usually incredibly interesting. It tends to cause you to jump out of your preconceived storytelling brain and try something different. Old rules are good rules but they don’t apply to every single story.

  30. I have about 10 to at least 12 characters with deep scenes. I don’t know if it should be a novel or screenplay. A screenplay has more characters with deep backgrounds and a novel has only 3 characters. So which one you think is best for me a novel or screenplay?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In all truth, you can just as easily do a screenplay with few characters and a novel with many. So it’s really a question of which you’d *prefer* to write. They’re very different art forms. Screenplays are stripped down to mostly dialogue. Novels are deeper, offering more interior glimpses of the characters’ inner thoughts.

  31. K.M.,

    In my writing I have one or two main characters then the secondary characters, minor characters and the villain for the story.

    In the outlander series-That author as way to many characters-Claire, Jamie, Black jack Randell, Bre-their daughter and others too.
    I do know that series is also on TV but having 100 characters in a book or novel or novella is too much.

    Too many to name.

    I do not read books with too many characters in them. Mind overload. Think can’t think.

    Merry Christmas to you and your family this year.

  32. This is deep stuff!! I do not write fiction but if I did these pointers would be welcomed.

    I know as much as every character should bring something significant to the story otherwise they are written in for the sake of it. It is just another person for the reader to remember. When I read books, I tend to look at the different characters and categorise them. If the book has a twist I try to identify which character is more likely to be the culprit.

  33. Hi, even this post was wrotten in 2013, it´s “up date”. I been reading the post and all comments here. (Sorry if my english is not so good, I´m not native). But, I think many people can be confuse about get just “3” characters on their works. Three doesnt means “only three people in the story”, at least if you are writing something like “Robisson Crusoe” or “Little Prince”.
    For any story you nead a main/mayor character, the villan/antagonist and the relationship character (s). Does means the good, the bad and the ugly, if I can tell something silly. Means, you must too have those scencial characters to made an interesting story as far. But doesnt means, None else, added in your story. As real life, you can´t live in a shell. You have to get another encounters with another people. And of course, all will depend the story an author is writting. My personal preference is long stories, with several characters, as LOTR or Ice and Fire series.
    Harry Potter got those three “invaluables characters”, but add a lot another characters wich help the story get a form. Sometimes, is good made some #cuts. But if the story need an extra, is not bad added.
    I wrote a personal novel with one main character, two relationed characters (lives with the MC) and a “no human” antagonist (are more mental/felling issues), but the story contains a long period of time, places and stories between to understand the main character´s issues.
    How many characters your novel need? These exactly three as you said, and all the “filled characters” needed to made the story real, attractive and with any kind of obstacles need it to made the reader wanted finish and pass the next page or chapter.

    Thanks for your advise. I hope people understand it, 3 is 3, but plus any person which is really needed for the story be told.

    Regards and congrats.

  34. I am planning on writing out an original science fiction based novel titled “Raptor Island.” I have three characters which you may consider to be all good, but now my main concern is how many villains should be involved? Would you say that five is a good number to start out with? Don’t know if certain members of these villains being human should have a certain death that they face respectfully. Sorry for any confusion. Thanks for taking your time to read this.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There’s no rule for number of antagonists. There should be a primary antagonistic force, which can then be represented by as many proxies as necessary. There can also be supporting antagonistic roles, such as the contagonist (see this post).

      • I don’t want to start out with too many villain characters at once. How many would you suggest that I start out with? Found that topic on character types being interesting yet confusing at the same time to me, no offense, just saying. Just based in the on the overall title of the novel, what do you think it’s about? I am open to any criticism.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          When in doubt, less is always more. I’d start with one antagonist, then decide if the story really requires more.

          • I would like to think that the villains would at least have some sort of advantage over my three main good characters in some way which isn’t confusing for anyone. Is there a certain age that my characters should be around? My original fictional character’s age is 29 years old. What choice of jobs should I give the other characters? The original fictional character in this story is a geneticist. Sorry to bore you.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            There’s no right or wrong answer to any of these questions. It really depends on the needs of your individual story.

  35. Good stuff here. I’ve been writing a story myself (hopefully a series), meant more as an over-the-top story poking fun at superhero/fantasy/sci-fi tropes (i.e. unlikely hero, magic McGuffin, prophecies, boss throwdowns, etc). Reading this has been very helpful for how I frame my story. I realized that I need to give more scenes to my main protagonist, in order to keep the focus of the story on him. I have him matched with two other heroes, one of them is already his friend at the beginning, and the other they meet very early. I do have a central main antagonist, with one main accomplice and a handful of hired minions. There are six other smaller side characters who help the heroes, with one basically having a couple scenes as a Morpheus/Nick Fury type character who helps get the ball rolling for the heroes.

    Essentially, the basic idea of the story is that the main hero and his two friends are recruited to fight the villain, who is after the McGuffin to make himself rich, famous, and powerful.

    That said, would you have any suggestions on improving my story? Is it, perhaps, too crowded? Or are there major weaknesses you may see?

    Feel free to let me know or give me some tips!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Based on what you’re telling me, it doesn’t strike me as too crowded. However, it does seem like perhaps you’re lacking a central focus around the protagonist’s personal journey. I recommend closely examining your theme as your next step.

  36. Robintvale (Jessica) says

    This article answered another question I had! No to go see if Han stays or goes. Think about merging two antoganists. If Maxwell and Kar become one then he won’t be so angery and serious all the time. It might work.

    Or just make Kar the main antoganist instead, he’s fun.

  37. Hi, I’m developing a novel that will more than likely be split into multiple books creating a series. my current dilemma is that I’m not quite sure I have a concrete idea of how many auxiliary characters are needed. I have a decent understanding of what I want the novel to be about but I’m wondering if its best to just write the story and create them as I go. or should I flesh out the story beforehand and if so how would I go about doing that? hopefully I’m making sense.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If possible, it’s nice to know which characters will figure prominently in the story’s Climax–since these will be the most important characters, one way or another, and should be properly developed throughout. Otherwise, you can feel free to make up what you need as you go.

  38. Tristan Tarasuik says

    Hello! I really enjoyed your article and I’m in a bit of a pickle right now concerning my novel and my characters.

    Right now, I have 9 named characters who are part of the story, and I’m not sure if I’m going to lose some, keep them, or add more. Right now, I have the main character (We’ll just call him “MC” from now on), the antagonist who is related to MC and the source of most of the conflict, and the relationship character (MC’s best friend) who’s his best friend and also gets her POV alongside Ren.

    However, it’s the other six that I’m worried about. I’m trying to put them in different roles, and I’m trying to make them important to the story. There’s MC’s stepfather, whose death kicks off the plot and impacts MC (Stepdad is also related to the antagonist); the reasonable one of the group that joins MC and Friend and has his own worldview and contributes to the lore of the world; the mentor who leads the agency that’s trying to figure out what’s going on behind the scenes; the MC’s friend’s boyfriend who serves as somewhat of a rival to MC and is part of the agency; the seemingly nice guy who’s the secondary antagonist / contagonist who’s a part of the Friend’s backstory, and a woman who’s a part of a community that vanished over time.

    I love all of these characters, but I’m worried that some, if not most of the 6 other characters contribute little to the story. Heck, sometimes I feel like adding more characters to flesh out the world. Is there anything that I’m doing wrong with my novel, and what can I do to help? Thank you for reading this!


  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 […]

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