How many characters in a story are too many?

I get asked about this a lot, in fact all the time. The answer to the question depends on what kind of story you are writing, whether it’s a short story or a novel.
Short stories have fewer characters because in a 1000 – 10,000 word story there isn’t room to have that many characters; it simply doesn’t work. And short stories always work very well with as few characters as possible.
Novels – being full length – have the scope to cope with a larger cast. There is room to explore them properly, with main characters getting full characterisation and backstory, therefore giving them complexity and depth.
So how many characters do you really need?
In essence, there are only two characters that any story needs – the Protagonist and the Antagonist. All other characters are secondary or peripheral. They will either be relatable or connected to the protagonist or the antagonist in some way. They are there to enhance the plot and the main characters and to help drive the story forward. If they don’t do any of these things, they’re redundant and should be cut.
The fact is that any novel needs a certain number of secondary and peripheral characters who have a function within the story. That amount can be anything from 20 or 30 characters. That seems a lot when seen in those terms, but spread over an 80,000 – 90,000 word novel, it’s a fairly average number.
Too Many Characters
What happens if there are too many characters?
Every writer will make the mistake of having too many characters at one point or another, thinking that these characters are vital to telling the story, when in fact they’re of no use to the story or the writer.
Are they important to the plot or main character? If they are not important, or don’t drive the story forward in some way, they are not necessary. Having too many characters could confuse your readers. Not only do they have to keep up with the plot twists and sub plots, they also have to remember who is who.
Writers need to remember that most of the characters should be memorable in some way, so that the reader remembers them, recognises them and relates to them. That won’t happen with a case of hundreds.
Writers often create characters that might have a walk-on part, are seen briefly, may not say anything, and are then gone, never to be seen again.  Sometimes these ‘walk-on’ characters serve no purpose to the story and should not be there. That’s not to say that peripheral characters should not be present, because they can be, as long as they have a purpose. If they serve no purpose, get rid of them.
One major problem with too many characters is that the higher the number, the less chance of having fully rounded and realised characters. Characterisation will suffer.
Another problem is that secondary characters may be left in the shadows, neglected. That’s simply because the writer has too many characters to focus on and he or she doesn’t realise that some characters have been left out. And some of those characters may be involved in subplots, so they need that attention.
At the other end of the scale, there is the common problem of having too many secondary characters slowly taking over the primary characters. Never allow secondary characters to overshadow your main character.
Writers also have a habit of inventing a handful of unimportant characters simply to serve a plot point or dish out some exposition, characters that have no purpose other than being there at the right moment, just to get the story and the writer out of a hole - deus ex falsis characteribus.
In other words, don’t use false characters to prop up a foundering story.
Too few Characters
Having too few characters can mean that the story won’t move forward. In a short story this isn’t a problem, but in a full length novel, it would be a difficult task indeed to actually tell the entire story through just a handful of people (unless you are an especially gifted writer).
Not only that, but sub plots cannot be explored with too few characters. That means the story cannot be expended to its full potential.
The story could end up being quite empty without the right amount of characters to support it, so it is all about balance. Any novel needs a decent amount of characters to tell a good story. Getting that balance right just takes practice.
They key to getting the balance right is to always explore your developing story and characters:-

1. Who are the most important characters?

2. What role will they play at the climax of the story?

3. Who are the secondary characters, why are they there?

4. Do each of the characters relate to the plot?

5. Do each of the characters drive the story forward in any way?

6. Who are the peripheral characters, what purpose do they serve?

Every story needs to be manageable. Can you manage with a cast of 20 characters? Perhaps 50 Characters? You’re in charge – in the end, you have to keep a close eye on all of them.

Next week: How to use interior thoughts/dialogue


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