How Many Characters Are Too Many?

When you’re writing a story, how do you know when you have too many characters in your book?

How Many Characters Are Too Many?

I found a book the other day whose title intrigued me. It was set in an era I loved, and the cover was wonderful, the blurb intriguing. The book itself had a nice heft and weight. It even had an attractive bibliosmia – otherwise known as aroma. I couldn’t wait to curl up on the couch with a coffee and the cat and read for hours.

It took an hour and a half to realise this was a book for which I would not find space on my bookshelves.

There were many reasons why I didn’t like the book, but the main one was that there were just too many characters. Now, I’m not against a large cast. I’ve read Lord Of The Rings. And enjoyed it. Any book by Terry Pratchett has numerous characters. Star Wars has a large cast. So does Toy Story. It’s how these characters are used that matters.

Perhaps it wasn’t the number of characters that mattered in the book I had chosen to read over Christmas. Perhaps it was the fact that the blurb, while it had told the truth about the plot, had forgotten to mention it was dull. ‘Tedious’ now springs to mind. At the time though, I kept thinking, ‘Oh please, for love of Shakespeare (a poor choice as he also loved to create large casts), not another new name that’ll I have to try and remember.’ What was even worse was the fact that each new character seemed to exist for no other reason than to utter one line in a conversation all the while sounding like any of the other characters.

Many writing courses will say to have no more than three main characters. Other courses say no more than six. The truth is…it’s your story – have as many or as few as you like. Here’s the thing – it’s not the quantity, but the quality that matters.

What You Need To Remember About Characters

  1. Your main character should appear in nearly all the scenes.

This is one of the most oft-taught ideas. In Lord Of The Rings by JRR Tolkien, Frodo Baggins is in nearly all scenes. This is important if your plot is linear.

But, of course, there are exceptions:

  • If your novel is non-linear and moves backwards and forwards in time with separate plot lines, each with its own set of characters.
  • If you have two plots happening at the same time which are hurtling towards each other.
  • If one of the plots is actually backstory that can’t be told another way, or reveals things that will affect the main character that won’t make sense unless you show us rather than tell us in an info-dump. Don’t do info-dumps.

If your story falls into one of these situations, it’s unlikely you will be able to have your main character in every scene.

Writing Tip: If your novel is one of the above, it’s a very good idea to make sure you let the reader know where and when that section of the book is set. The best place to do that is in the chapter heading. Give your read the chapter number, the location and the year. The reader will then be orientated correctly to plunge back into that part of the story without hesitation.

  1. Don’t have six characters when three will do.

Every character must have a point. In the book I was reading, every character seemed to be described in detail. After a while, I stopped caring as these characters seemed to have no reason for existence. They told me nothing one of the main characters could have said. They all sounded, and from the descriptions, looked the same. Every character must look and sound different. Toy Story is a great example, and every toy’s uniqueness came into play at some point that was vital to the plot.

In television police dramas, there may be a dozen people in the squad room, but only three or four regular characters ever take part in the conversation. The others scribble notes furiously, hand the main characters files, look interested and concerned, and answer the phone which they then hand to the main character. They are anonymous room-fillers.

Writing Tip: If you want a large cast, be selective. If a walk-on character is going to appear again, and the information they give to one or more main character moves the plot forward, reveals things about another main character, or helps to build the world in which your book is set, then yes, spend some time showing us more about them, but not too much. Remember, they are there to push the main characters further into the plot, or to cause another complication for them. Try to bring that character back at some point in the book as well. Even if it’s only as a mention by the protagonist or the antagonist. Bear in mind ‘Chekov’s gun’.

  1. Too many characters will dilute the power of the main cast

The reason for ‘every character must have a point’ is because of this dilution. The strongest section of Wall-E was the first three-quarters of the movie when it was only Wall-E and Eve. The first twenty minutes of the movie is just Wall-E. Ninety-five percent of the movie Castaway was one character. And both of these are powerful films.

Writing Tip: The phrase ‘kill your darlings’ doesn’t just apply to well-crafted sentences or descriptions. It also applies to characters. If your novel seems cluttered, or clumsy, a good place to start is by cutting back on your cast-list. There are some members of cast you have to have. Take Castaway as an example.

  • The protagonist, who was played by Tom Hanks.
  • The antagonist which was personified by the weather, the location, and the loneliness.
  • The sidekick. Your hero has to have someone to talk to so the reader knows what he’s thinking, what he’s planning, how he feels about things. And the sidekick doesn’t have to be human or sentient. Tom Hanks had a basketball he called Wilson.

The Last Word

If you have always wanted to learn how to write a book, start the new year well and sign up for a course with Writers Write It’s the perfect place to learn.

Elaine Dodge

by Elaine Dodge. Elaine is the author of The Harcourts of Canada series and The Device HunterElaine trained as a graphic designer, then worked in design, advertising, and broadcast television. She now creates content, mostly in written form, for clients across the globe, but would much rather be drafting her books and short stories.

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Posted on: 17th January 2024
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