Signs Your Story Has Too Many Characters

As I was editing and saving this week’s video, I realized why this post seemed so familiar to me all week: I’d already done an almost identical video on the exact same subject four months ago! So please chalk it up to my wonky memory and forgive me for the repeated information. Apparently, it’s a subject you all needed to hear twice!

This week’s video highlights a few of the problems of overlarge casts and offers remedies.

Video Transcript:

Characters are what it’s all about. That’s why we read; that’s why we write. And as we’re writing, we’re often bombarded by interesting people who are all clamoring to be a part of our story world. And who are we—humble writers that we are—to deny them entrance to their chance at colorful life, right? So we throw ’em in there. That’s how stories are written, no question. But there comes a point when so many characters are actually too many. This is a very subjective point that depends entirely on the needs of each individual story, which can make it a little tricky to diagnose. But diagnose it we must, if we plan to avoid annoying readers and instead give them the best story we can.

Basically, the problem of too many characters is two-sided. On one side of the coin, we have the simple pitfall of readers being unable to keep track of who is who. If your cast is so ginormous that readers are going to be flipping to the front of the book every few scenes to check your dramatis personae, it’s a sure sign you’ve smacked them with more characters than they can handle. On the other side of the coin, we have the related problem of fragmenting our narrative. Even if our readers are canny enough to keep track of our large cast, we may still harm our story by hacking up its smooth narrative into multiple chunks.

So how do you determine whether you’ve created too many characters? The first question you need to ask yourself is how many characters do you need? What’s the bare minimum with which you could tell your story? Are there characters you can delete without losing anything important? Are there characters you could combine to streamline your cast? Are there POVs you could delete to lessen the choppy feel of the narrative? Many readers love lush, complicated stories, but never forget that, generally speaking, the best stories are the tightest, leanest, and sharpest.

Tell me your opinion: Are there any characters you could delete or combine in your work-in-progress?

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.

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.

Comments

  1. I thought this sounded familiar too! Lol!

    Well, I went from having 8 teens in my last WIP down to just 5 teens. It is hard enough to give each one voice without overwhelming the reader. I can’t imagine adding more!

    This is a great reminder! Thanks!

  2. Yes, the issue of unique voices is another potential pitfall of too many characters. It can be difficult to find that many new and interesting perspectives and make them all stand out in their own ways.

  3. I generally keep enough characters to interest the reader.. but not so many that the reader’s overwhelmed…
    And I’ve found a great way to remove extra characters if they get in the way… just have them die/be killed.. 😉

  4. Genius! A handy serial killer is a writer’s best friend. 😉

  5. I’ve already streamlined a bunch of characters, though I do have a few extra cast members in “pet the dog” scenes which will hopefully show Joe isn’t a complete jerk. If those scenes don’t work, I hope my beta readers will let me know prior to publication and reader boredom.

  6. That’s what betas are for! 😉

  7. As long as the characters are connected and each has a significant part to play in the story, I think the number of characters shouldn’t cause much trouble.

  8. It all comes down to what the story needs. The story is always boss, and every story needs something different.

  9. I write long sagas and interlocking series books spanning many years and generations, so I always have lots of characters and many storylines. Each character serves his or her own purpose and contributes to the overall storyline and world. I did recently decide not to transcribe the first series I wrote with my Atlantic City characters, since it needs way too much fleshing out, editing, and revising, and that means a number of the pointless characters I created only to give my original cast a whole new slew of friends in high school will be axed. By this point I haven’t worked with those superfluous characters in over 15 years, so I just don’t care about them or know them very deeply. It seems as natural to have ensemble casts as it does to write long, involved sagas. I’d feel really unhappy if I had to write something that only had a handful of characters, like I were pretending to be someone I’m not, and never will be.

  10. Sagas are one type of story that demands complex casts of character. As you say, the key is always to make certain each character is playing an important role. If he’s not, he’s gone – or should be.

  11. Another good post!
    Do you think you could write an article about backshadowing? I’ve heard of it before, it is like foreshadowing except different, and I got curious about it, what it’s functions are and where in books it may be helpful to use.

  12. I’ve touched on backshadowing (or what I refer as “flashforwarding”) in this post: “Hook Readers With a Sneak Peek.”

  13. I figure if I need an organizational chart to keep track of my characters (a la some Agatha Christie stories), I probably have too many in my story.

  14. Mysteries have a little more leeway, since they have lots of (supposedly) incidental characters who zigzag through the story on their way to becoming suspects.

  15. I have wondered, as I am finishing my 1st historical romance, if I need to slash a few ‘extras’….maybe when I read through it or when my Beta readers do…they give me ideas? I guess I would rather know sooner, than later 🙂 Thanks for this helpful post!

  16. I think this particular subject is worth repeating. You made a good point about asking what is the bare minimum you need to tell the story. I posed this question in my work-in-progress after I began writing it. I ended up cutting two characters which significantly tightened the narrative. I ended up using some of their backstories with the remaining characters. No idea is ever wasted completely!

  17. Thanks for this post. I do sometimes get carried away with characters and have to trim them in the final versions.

  18. @Lorna: We writers are often ridiculously non-objective about our characters in particular. When we adore them all, it’s difficult to make the call to ax some of them. Betas are great for that!

    @Eleni: “No idea is ever wasted” – that’s the great thing about writing. Ideas can adapt remarkably well to all kinds of environments. A character doesn’t work out in your historical romance? Maybe he’ll find a home in your science fiction story!

    @Traci: They’re addictive!

  19. I always seem to run into this problem – too many characters clamoring in my head to be let out. It’s hard to keep track of them and I often fill up 2-3 pages just with character names and basic details. I find I have to often rework characters, combine them, or just 86 them, and often I have to let go of a few characters I do love and see so much potential with because there are other characters that are more important. I do try to limit the amount of characters in each individual chapter, but somehow my stories always end up with a huge cast. Any other articles you could point me to that might help me or suggestions you could offer would be wonderful.

  20. I’m so glad I’m not the only one who does things twice, then realizes too late…

    Have a nice weekend. 🙂

  21. Well, then I’m in good company too!

Trackbacks

  1. […] There are two main problems with having an abundance of characters, blogger and author KM Weiland writes. […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.