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?

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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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. @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.

  6. 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

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

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

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

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  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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. :/

  16. 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!

  17. 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.

  18. 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. 🙂

  19. 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??

  20. Ohita Afeisume says:

    This is so helpful.I will rework my WIP using these tips especially with respect to giving my characters memorable traits, actions in situations where several characters meet .

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