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October 21, 2014

Ask Jami: How Many Characters Is “Too Many”?

Silhouette of a crowd with text: How Many Characters Do We Need?

This week I have more posts inspired by questions people asked me. Yay! I don’t have to think of topics. Love that. *smile*

Actually, this topic is interesting because I received three different questions within two weeks that were all related. All three readers had questions about characters, specifically about numbers, point of view, and descriptions.

So let’s start with today’s question about how we can find the Goldilocks number of characters for our story. Not too few and not too many…

What’s the “Right” Number of Characters?

Kim wants to know if there’s an optimal number of characters to include in a novel. That’s a great question because, as she says:

“It seems that one character is too limited; the novel can become claustrophobic, but too many characters can confuse things.”

The second part of Kim’s question brings up another issue, however. She says:

“I’m not talking about the extras, but characters who have character arcs and who we care about.”

Kim is right that there’s a balance between the claustrophobia of too few characters and the confusion of too many characters. She’s also right that there are different “levels” of characters. So before we talk numbers, let’s first define some of the terms.

The Different Types of Characters

We can label characters depending on whether they have an arc, whether scenes are shown from their point of view, how much they drive the story, and their story purpose.

Main Character(s)/Protagonist(s):

  • Protagonists usually have a full arc over the course of the story. They have goals and change in some way to overcome the obstacles.
  • They typically “make things happen” during the story, and their driving of the plot is often their purpose in the story (i.e., the protagonist’s purpose for being in the story is one and the same as the story goals).
  • Much (if not all) of the story is told from their point of view (POV).
  • Some genres (such as the romance genre) have two protagonists, but most have only one protagonist.

Secondary Characters with Point-of-View Scenes:

  • Some stories include scenes from multiple POVs.
  • A secondary character might not have what we’d typically call an “arc” (with a sense of change), but if they have a POV scene, we’d usually include at least a hint of their goals (even if they fail abruptly with their death at the end of the scene).
  • The arc of these non-protagonist characters might not continue throughout the entire story, but instead stop and start as needed for the plot.
  • These characters may or may not “make things happen” during the story. If they do make things happen, their actions often directly affect the protagonist.
  • The use of these other POVs often depends on the genre:
    • Mysteries or thrillers might include POV scenes from the villain or a victim.
    • Epics of different genres (from literary fiction to political or fantasy) might include scenes from five or more characters to increase the scope of the story world.
    • Some epics might not have a main protagonist driving the story at all, and instead gather the stories of several major POV characters between its covers.
    • The story purpose of these POV characters depends on the genre, but they typically fulfill a goal that’s smaller than the story at large.

Secondary Characters without Point-of-View Scenes:

  • With rare exceptions, all but the shortest stories include secondary characters.
  • Like above, these characters often have goals, but might not have a full sense of an arc, where they change over the course of the story.
  • When they make things happen, the underlying purpose is to move the story forward and affect the protagonist.
  • At their essence, these characters can be categorized by their function for the story:
    • mentor who teaches the protagonist an important lesson
    • best friend who forces the protagonist to look at the situation from a different perspective
    • antagonist who creates obstacles
    • bumbler who sets a plot event in motion, etc., etc.
  • It’s because of those clichéd categories that we try to round these characters out with their own goals, dreams, and changes, but we still wouldn’t include them in our story if they didn’t serve a story purpose.

Extras:

  • Extras are characters who exist only for their purpose to the story.
  • They may or may not have dialogue, but we give no sense of their own goals beyond their story purpose.

What Causes Us to Use the Wrong Number of Characters?

Now that we have all that defined, we can take a closer look at what Kim’s question really means. When it comes to too few or too many characters, not all of those labels are created equal.

We’re not typically going to have issues with the number of extras we use. No one cares about them, so it doesn’t matter if that restaurant scene in our story has 10 extras filling the other tables or 100 extras. We decide strictly by the needs of the story.

We’re not typically going to have issues with the number of protagonists we use simply because most stories include only one protagonist. Beyond the exceptions of sweeping epics or a dual protagonist story (such as a romance), we’d run into trouble only when we’re confused about the story we’re trying to tell.

However, where we often have issues is with secondary characters. As I mentioned, secondary characters can be major characters with lots of dialogue, POV scenes, goals, etc. If we do our job right, they’ll feel just as real to us as our protagonist. As authors or readers, we do care about these characters.

And that’s why we run into trouble. We can do such a good job of defining these charming, funny, interesting secondary characters beyond the clichés or their story purpose that they can multiply or take over too much of the story. We can care so much that we want to hang out more with them. Those issues can lead to a loss of focus, plot tangents, etc.

Arcs, Arcs, Does Everybody Arc?

This goes back to the second part of Kim’s question. I want to point out that not every secondary character needs an arc, complete with a sense of change, in order for us to care about them. We can care about secondary characters simply because of their humor, bantering skills, insights, etc.

In fact, we don’t want to give our secondary characters an arc with change if it would distract or steal focus from this story we’re trying to tell. For many of our secondary characters, any sense of change will be limited and might center only on the protagonist or main story (such as changing from disrespecting the protagonist to respecting them).

We do want our secondary characters to have goals and a purpose beyond this story so they don’t feel like cardboard puppets, but it’s okay if we only hint at those goals (such as with a disagreement with the protagonist, or even just a disagreeing tone of voice), and it’s okay if they don’t change much (or at all). If their story is that compelling, we can save it for the sequel. *smile*

How Can We Tell How Many Characters We Should Have?

Unfortunately, I don’t know of any “golden rule” to decide on the right number of characters because there are several variables:

  • Word Count:

Obviously, shorter works usually have fewer characters. A short story may have only one character. Novellas are likewise going to have fewer characters just because they have fewer subplots. But novels are big enough to support many characters if we wish.

  • Genre:

As I mentioned above, genre can affect our number of protagonists, POV characters, and other secondary characters. A sweeping family epic needs a lot of characters to create the sense of scope.

  • Style:

Similar to genre, some stories want a broad cast to create a far-ranging style. Other stories, like romances or cozy mysteries, might want a more intimate mood brought on by smaller-scale casts.

What’s the Right Number of Characters for Our Story?

Step One:

Determine the number of protagonists. In most cases, this would be “one.” Certain genres like romance default to two. However, even in that case, one protagonist is usually primary. So if we have more than one protagonist, we want to answer the “whose story is this?” question.

As a romance author, I can tell you that even in dual protagonist story lines, one protagonist typically drives the story more. One character’s arc might be stronger than the other, or one’s goals might be more directly tied to the plot and overall story than the other.

Keep that difference in mind when developing scenes. Too many scenes driven by the other protagonist, when they aren’t connected to the primary protagonist’s goals (i.e., the story goals), can slow the pace or cause the story to lose focus.

(Edited to add: Emerald’s comment below made me think of a way that multiple protagonists can share ownership, one for the external arc and one for the internal arc. So there are many ways to ensure that our story stays coherent, even with multiple protagonists. Read my reply to her for more details.)

Step Two:

Determine the number of “cast openings” based on the story. Remember that all secondary characters, with or without POV scenes, exist for a story purpose. Any character who doesn’t have a purpose in the story should be cut. Think about how each character moves the story forward, kicks off a plot event, or helps, hinders, enlightens, or confuses the protagonist.

Step Three:

Determine whether any character can overlap and fulfill multiple story purposes without breaking the story. Can our protagonist’s best friend also be their mentor? Or would it be better to keep those functions separate?

Step Four:

Determine whether we need more characters to evoke the proper style or scope. For some stories, where we want a large cast to create an epic feel, we might need to add subplots or twists to create more cast openings for secondary characters.

A good rule of thumb might be:

Include as many characters as needed to tell the story and evoke the proper style and scope—and no more.

For intimate novels, this number might be as small as 2-5 secondary characters, and for broader stories, this number might be 20-30. Obviously, the larger the number, the harder it might be for our readers to remember them all, which is why we want to make sure that every character is there for a reason.

If we have thirty major characters, twenty of them with POV scenes, it will be difficult for readers to pick up the book and re-immerse themselves in the story after a pause. Or we might need to include a “Cast of Characters” in the front or back of the book, which can make our story look intimidating to some readers.

On the other hand, if we need 20 or more characters to juggle all the pieces of a giant Game of Thrones chessboard plot, that’s what we need. The point is to determine the number the story needs for plot and style, while ensuring that we’re not allowing tangents or rambling events to steal the focus from the story we want to tell.

Step Five:

Ensure that all non-extra characters are the best, strongest, or most compelling we can make them. Our secondary characters need a primary purpose for existing in our story, but it shouldn’t feel that way to our readers. They should feel natural and organic to the story. Secondary characters can often be the glue that holds a story together, the comic relief creating a more entertaining read, or the spark that makes a story come alive.

Step Six:

Be smart about introducing characters to readers. This means that we should:

  • limit introductions to two (maybe three) characters a page
  • use varied names so we don’t have Joyce and Jane or Tom and Don, with similar initial letters or sounds
  • avoid using names for extras unless necessary
  • if appropriate, give characters a memorable feature, trait, mannerism, etc.

Thanks for the question, Kim! I’ve written stories with large casts and small casts, so hopefully these tips will help us all figure out the right number for our story. Everything we write is a choice, and how we populate our stories is no different. *smile*

What’s the smallest cast you’ve written? What’s the largest? Have you ever had to cut a character? How did you figure out they needed to go? Do you have other tips for knowing how many characters we need?

Join Jami in her upcoming workshop:
Get ready for NaNo by learning how to do just enough story development to write faster with “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.”

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What do you think?

48 Comments on "Ask Jami: How Many Characters Is “Too Many”?"

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Carradee

Smallest cast has been 2, I think, in some short stories…though one is arguably 3. Largest cast has been… Oh, I’m afraid to count.

I don’t think I’ve ever yet actually cut a character in something I finished, though I’ve considered it. So far, the prospect of cutting a character altogether would cause more problems than it solves. I have, though, revised which characters appear in which scenes.

It’s one of those details that I play “by ear”, right now. I don’t stress about it…but I’m also well aware that my casts can get rather large. *shrug* As I get more practice writing, I’ll learn more.

Robin
Robin

Thanks for another interesting blog post. 🙂
Between the first and second draft, I cut 3 POVs from my WIP (from 5 down to 2), and removed at least 1 character entirely (and I really loved him. He danced off the page SO alive…) But this story didn’t need that character, so he got the Ax. Might get a starring role in something later, though… The 3 POVs that got cut are all characters which will remain, I just won’t show anything from those perspectives.
And now the story is turning itself into a cozy little romance – which was not my primary goal initially, but seems to suit pretty well…

Emerald
Emerald

Hi Jami, on average, I have 10-15 characters with names in my books (including protagonist, antagonist and secondary). I’ve “demoted” secondary characters like you said Jami. I’ve also had a secondary character get their own POV, who I didn’t initially view as important. I feel like things change as I write, and am able to see the characters more clearly as I go to determine their importance.
I do differ a little from what you were saying though, as I tend to have 2-3 protagonists (and POV’s in most of my stories (mysteries). I haven’t been told it’s confusing at all, but I wonder if you think I’m diluting the characters arcs by doing this, or making it more difficult to maintain focus on each one?

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Ooh I was going to ask you this question but never got around to asking it! Popular question, this. Yeah I have 2 protagonists since it’s a romantic comedy. I’d assume the heroine is the main protagonist because she’s the first protag to appear in the story, but…the hero is much more well developed, complex, and arc-ed, if you know what I mean, haha. Not sure about who drives the story, because it’s plot driven…But if you mean who drives the romance plot, well, they drive it together! 😀 Ooh not naming extras. I eventually figured out this tip too, because I kept naming super minor characters; I later realized that naming a character would make the reader think we will see the character again, but we will not, lol. I have both secondary characters with POVs and secondary characters without POVs. Hmm my cast of “main” teenage characters is about 14-16 people, including the hero and heroine. The few “main” non-teenage secondary characters is about 5 (but one is already dead before the story started. Can already dead characters count as secondary characters? She “causes” a subplot and is a huge influence on one of my secondary non-teenage characters because of her relationship with him and what happened to her.) And eh…I think it’s a norm for Chinese martial arts genre stories to have a relatively large (protags and secondaries) cast like 20ish people, so at least my story cast number seems to be suitable for its genre, haha.… Read more »
Kim

Yay! Thanks for answering my question! 🙂

What generated the question was that I kept adding new characters to my story. I’m writing historical fiction and it’s going to encompass the whole of one woman’s life. I didn’t like being stuck with just her and another character or two. Other characters kept popping up and making themselves known. Adding these characters has created a story much more in line with what I wanted to do when I started. I want it peopled with the protagonists’ brother to the local blacksmith.

I was just becoming a little nervous that I’d dilute her story if I had too many characters. This is my first novel so I’m still figuring things out!

This post helps a lot!

Robin
Robin

Hi Kim,
That sounds really interesting. About what time period is it set in?

Anne R. Allen

Fantastic breakdown of an important subject. I think most writers tend to have too many characters, and we give too many details about them upfront, before we know if the character will be important to the story. Nothing wrong with that. We just have to be willing to cut that stuff when we edit. This will help a lot with that editing. I like it that you point out that genre makes a huge difference. Fantasy can have a cast of thousands, which would completely overwhelm most other genres.

One thing that helps the reader is if the walk-on characters don’t have names. Just call them “pizza delivery guy” or “the nice policeman” if that’s what they’re doing in the story.

Killion Slade

What a delightful trio of questions to answer this week! It’s hot on everyone’s mind going into Nano. 🙂

I am considering cutting a secondary character who adds depth and breath to the overall family unit, but I haven’t found a way to bring her into the immediate story. I’m thinking she might be off at a college and utilize her more in the third book of the series.

I tend to use three/four POVs. First and second are reserved for my protags, and then I will have a POVs from the antag’s take on the whole story. I have found this helps provide a path to empathy for my villains, and allow their story to be told. I strive to make my antags become the antihero of their arc because in their minds, they think they are right, and I want to give the reader that opportunity to go deep within them.

Thank you for the awesome post! As always! 🙂

Widdershins

Great analysis! … basically, as many as you need and not a body more! 🙂

Julie Musil

Great topic, Jami! I recently told my critique partner that I was ditching two of the characters because they weren’t needed. She reminded me that yes, one can go, but the other needs to stay. She was right. If the character provides some sort of purpose, and can’t be combined with another character, she/he needs to stay. But sometimes we don’t realize that until later drafts, which is why it’s all about rewriting, right?

Loni Townsend

I’m one to have a lot of characters. A friend once told me I’ll never be lonely because I have so many voices in my head. But I do have multiple POV sprawling epics though… That’s no excuse for my first person, single POV novella. I think that one is probably on the verge of too many characters. I just can’t stop myself! Is there a rehab group for that?

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Sonia G Medeiros

Excellent advice, as usual 😉 . For my WIP, I have one MC but several important secondary characters, most of whom have POV scenes so that we can see things outside of the MC’s perspective and, hopefully, ratchet up the tension. I’ve struggled some with being comfortable with what seems like a large cast to me but your post has helped me clarify. At this point, I don’t think I have any characters who can be cut so any characters that I have left, however many that is, is what I need. Thankfully, it’s not a GOTesque number though. 🙂

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April
April

Wonderful! I have wondered about this! Too many and I get confused, too few IMO is boring depending on the story type. I had also wondered about ARCs! Can’t wait to read the next post!

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Holly
Holly

Just found this blog and I love it! It’s been super helpful, thanks for taking time to work on these, I know blogging can sometimes be hard work, lol!
I have had to cut out a character in the novel I’m currently working on. She was supposed to be one of my major characters (in the 400+ page novel there are quite a few main characters), but I realized I wasn’t spending enough time with her. She was there but invisible, so to speak. She had hardly any lines like she needed. I rewrote the story without her, and so far it’s been great. With her there she was always in the back of my mind, I knew I needed to add more scenes with her but it was taking away from the story I was trying to tell. Without her I feel much more free, lol!

Maggie Jones
Maggie Jones

Hi Jami, this post has been soooo useful. For Presents/Modern stories, there are only two protagonists, no other characters of any other note, and POVs swapping between the two. Both must have an equal showing. But it’s drained the story’s energy for me – so looking at it as one person taking the external, one the internal arc certainly helps.
Thanks!

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