Often I’m asked how many characters are too many for a story, but the honest answer would be to assess the story or novel and make an informed decision on how many characters are central to the story. In truth, there is no definitive right or wrong. Some novels have many characters, like the Harry Potter novels, and Lord of the Rings, while others have a bare minimum.
Firstly, too few characters are not necessarily a bad thing. Many novels have just a few main and secondary characters and they work well because the main focus is constantly on them throughout the novel. That means there aren’t less important characters stealing some of that limelight, and thus fewer subplots to write and to keep an eye on.
In short stories it’s somewhat different – the fewer the characters, the better. That’s because you may only have between 1000 and 10,000 words to tell the story and having too many characters may complicate the whole thing and make it difficult for the reader to keep track of them. Most short stories thrive on 2 – 4 characters.
But what about too many characters?
Having too many characters in a novel can complicate things. This is where beginners tend to trip up by throwing in lots of characters into the mix with a multitude of viewpoints, thinking that it will make the story more exciting, but this only detracts from the story for the reader trying to follow so many people. The problem is that there is a tendency for the reader not to empathise with or relate to the characters because there are so many of them to follow.
Not only that, but trying to write each individual character, complete with personalities etc, can become confusing for the writer. Sometimes there are many secondary characters with subplots, and the writer then realises that those subplots need concluding by the end of the novel. Sometimes this complicates things and the writer needs to have a major character cull o get back on track.
The other thing to avoid when there is a large amount of characters – and this is common – is upstaging. This where secondary or minor characters take over and inadvertently shadow the main character. If that happens, the balance of characters is wrong and needs correcting. Never allow secondary characters to overshadow your main character.
As with many elements in fiction, however, it’s all about balance. The question you need to ask is how many characters can effectively tell the story?
Pivotal characters – the protagonist and the antagonist - are the main focus of every story. In addition, there are the secondary characters, but only those who are still central to telling the story.
Peripheral characters – minor ones - might only have a few lines or maybe appear in the background, and so will not clog the narrative with superfluous ‘padding’. Keeping peripheral characters to a minimum is wise. The rule of thumb is ‘if they’re not key to the plot, then cut them’.
In any story, the writer is looking for character development; fully rounded personalities that can move the story forward and evoke the reader’s empathy and emotions through conflict. It’s important that your reader cares for you characters. If you have too many people loading the narrative, the reader won’t know which character to bother with.
In an ideal world, the number of main characters would be around 4 to 10. Secondary characters would be around the same numbers. Peripheral and background characters should be just that, flitting in and out of the background.
So, can you still engage your reader with, say, 25 characters? Can you do it with less than 10?
Think carefully about how many of your characters can tell the story, think about their development and conflicts, and decide what will be best for you. Find the right balance of characters and remember who is central to your plot.
Next week: Dialogue versus description.