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 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. Günther says:

    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?

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. Ms. Albina says:

    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.
    tv
    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.

  11. 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.

  12. BookWorm says:

    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.

  13. 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.

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