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

by Jami Gold on October 21, 2014

in Writing Stuff

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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48 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Carradee October 21, 2014 at 9:56 am

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.

Reply

Jami Gold October 21, 2014 at 12:31 pm

Hi Carradee,

I haven’t fully cut a character yet, but I have demoted them from a secondary character to an extra. 🙂 As you said, much of this is playing it by ear because there isn’t a set rule to follow. Thanks for sharing your insights!

Reply

Carradee October 22, 2014 at 6:12 am

Oh, when you include demotion and promotion of characters… Yes, I’ve done that.

My high fantasy series is essentially multiple smaller stories telling one bigger one. Folks who have read into the first draft of book 4 (to be finished this week or next) are particularly going, “OH! THAT’S what’s going on!” Some of the secondary characters therefore weave in and out…or appear in a bundle…or only appear in one protagonist’s book and not the others. (And, since much is left to the reader to puzzle out rather than put on the page outright, some readers LOVE that, and some can’t stand it.)

But I originally had written a stand-alone novel and realized I had a trilogy…which has expanded into a quintet…that is actually going to be 6 or 7 books long. *facepalm* With book 5 taking place 20 years before book 1. O.O I’m feeling kind of intimidated by the prospect, but I figure it’ll either flop or be brilliant.

In the original version of what became book one, one maidservant had a throwaway line. Meh, whatever. Well, it grew into the maidservant being a good friend of a secondary character, which led to “How on earth does a lowborn chambermaid end up friends with the daughter of the royal prophet?”

Answering that developed into realizing that maidservants had secrets of her own—which are why the narrator of book one had internal scars vanish halfway through the book—and that maidservant also ending up the narrator of book two.

I’m one of those authors whose narrator is not necessarily the protagonist. That…doesn’t help the confusion, I know. 🙂

Reply

Jami Gold October 22, 2014 at 3:42 pm

Hi Carradee,

There are many beloved series that promote throwaway characters over the course of the series. It’s fun to read the first Harry Potter and see throwaway names during the sorting hat ceremony that go on to become full-fledged characters. 🙂

Wow! I’m intimidated just hearing about your plan. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!

Reply

Robin October 21, 2014 at 12:36 pm

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…

Reply

Jami Gold October 21, 2014 at 12:40 pm

Hi Robin,

I understand. The first original novel I finished had a character who was so deliciously…”slimy” might be the right word for it?…that he was a delight to write. 😀

I finally got him to settle down in my head when I promised I’d write his story later. When I revise that book in the future, it will eventually be a series, and he has a big part in the overall series arc because he fits better there. 🙂 Good luck with finding the right balance in your story and thanks for the comment!

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Robin October 24, 2014 at 6:23 am

It is easier to hit delete knowing that nothing (no one) is ever really gone… 🙂

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Jami Gold October 24, 2014 at 10:05 am

Hi Robin,

Ha! True! 😀

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Emerald October 21, 2014 at 1:31 pm

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?

Reply

Jami Gold October 21, 2014 at 2:15 pm

Hi Emerald,

I’m with you that we might not figure out until later in our drafting/revising process just how important a character is. So this absolutely is not something we need to nail down in the first draft. 🙂

Hmm, to answer your question, every book and every genre is different, so I wouldn’t want to say that something is “wrong.” However, I wanted to put the definitions I was using for the different levels in the post because I think some writers consider every character who has a bunch of scenes from their POV as protagonists, and that’s not quite what I mean by the word here.

(And to be fair, there are many books where part of the ongoing debate centers around “which character is the protagonist?” So there are certainly some gray and wavy lines around the concept, no matter how we define it. 🙂 )

What I was attempting to point out is that protagonists (in my definition here) drive the story and the story goals. So my first question would be whether those other characters are actually protagonists, or if they’re just major secondary characters with POV scenes?

We can have very major characters who I wouldn’t consider protagonists (as far as story goals) because they’re not “driving” the story, especially not at the final conflict. For those characters, we have to make sure that their storyline isn’t distracting or confusing the main storyline.

In most cases, we’d see these characters participating in the main storyline, or we’d see them as important pieces of subplots that eventually tie into the main storyline. (And note, some subplots will tie into the external-action storyline (a subplot that helps overcome the main conflict later), and some will only tie into the internal-emotion storyline (a subplot that reinforces the emotional arc of the protagonist).) Any of those situations work well because they don’t distract from this story.

My second point, as I mentioned in the post, would be that even if we have more than one protagonist, typically one protagonist’s goals will more closely align with the story’s goals. We might be able to tell which protagonist “owns” the story by figuring out which character “owns” the final conflict. The climax of the story is the point of the story, so whichever character is central to that conflict is closer to the point of the story goals.

For example, in a paranormal romance, the couple might end up fighting the bad guy together, but at its essence, the fight is often more about one of them confronting the bad guy and the other one “helping” because…love. 😉 Now, that doesn’t mean that the one who takes the lead during the Climax is the “owning” character. I have one story where the primary protagonist is unconscious for much of the Climax. LOL! But the fight is still hers–it’s central to her life and goals–and the other protagonist steps in when she can’t.

(To give a well-known example, I see Guardians of the Galaxy in this category. Gamora owns the story even though Peter Quill is at the center of much of the movie. It’s her goals that drive the group to take action. Every scene, even though they’re focused on Peter Quill, was about getting to Gamora and her goals. His actions drove the movie to her, and she drove the big movie-size actions and story goals from there. But I hope that example didn’t confuse the issue more. 🙂 )

In other words, in most multiple protagonist stories, one character “owns” the central conflict more than the others. Does it have to be that way? No, hence the debates on certain stories. LOL! I’m just sharing what’s typical.

However (and this is why I brought up the issue in the post), where I would be concerned is if a story had multiple protagonists all driving the story in different directions and those different directions never came together in a cohesive, coherent way. Judging by agent and editor comments, when authors can’t identify who owns the story, it’s often because they don’t have a central story to their story. Some literary fiction books can get away with that approach, but genre can’t.

So I brought up the hint as something to watch out for and give advice on how to ensure that our story does have a central storyline, as well as share thoughts on making sure that multiple protagonists stories keep that storyline in mind and not wander off-tangent. The reason it’s important to identify who “owns” the story is just because it keeps us on track with the plot and subplots and story goals. That’s it. Whether we label them protagonists or secondary characters doesn’t matter as much as that. 🙂

(And now that I think about it, I think Gamora owns the external arc of Guardians of the Galaxy (defeat of the bad guy), but an argument could be made that Peter Quill owns the internal arc by those who say he changes the most. So “sharing ownership” across internal and external could be another way to balance multiple protagonists as well! 😀 Cool–thanks for making me think of that!)

I hope that answers your concern. Thanks for the great question and for the comment!

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Emerald October 21, 2014 at 5:35 pm

Wow, thank you so much for the detail you went into! I love the thought of having a different protagonist for the internal and external conflict, but you’re right, when I look at it the way you’ve explained, there are only two real protagonists in my first story, and one in my second. The others ARE just major secondary characters when I think about which one’s motivations/wants align with the plot and drive it forward.
Thanks again Jami! Great explanation.

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Jami Gold October 21, 2014 at 6:36 pm

Hi Emerald,

Yay! I’m glad that all made sense and didn’t confuse things more. 🙂

And thank you for the great question! I hadn’t thought about the possibility of an internal-arc protagonist and an external-arc protagonist until you brought it up. LOL!

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Serena Yung October 21, 2014 at 2:36 pm

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.

Ooh cool point about secondary characters needing a purpose in the story. Although I wouldn’t “cut” them out as if they were objects I could take out rather than people to be respected, I do see what you mean. I couldn’t “remove” them, but I could always omit scenes of them. Stories are indeed more interesting if the secondary character seems to “matter” somehow, e.g. in bringing out an important theme, in their relationship with or how they affect the protagonists or other secondary characters, etc. I find that for romantic comedies, if a new secondary turns out to be the lover of a secondary we already know, interest instantly zooms up for this newly introduced secondary! At least my interest would zoom up, haha. But yeah, I do agree that secondaries should preferably serve some purpose to the story in order for them to feel significant enough to be read about. (Have you read those stories where some random character comes on stage, and you totally don’t care about them and don’t know why the author bothered to talk about them and feel like the author is wasting your time? A lot of these stories have won book prizes too, haha, showing that awarded books aren’t always my personal cup of tea…)

Oh I understand that claustrophobic feeling of having only one or two characters.

“The arc of these non-protagonist characters might not continue throughout the entire story, but instead stop and start as needed for the plot”

Oh yeah I understand this point too. Well for my story, they wouldn’t stop and start “as needed for the plot”, but we might not see the end of this arc because this story isn’t about these secondary characters! We might see the arc completed in the sequel, but otherwise, we shouldn’t expect to see how it ends within the length of the book/ series, haha. And some secondary characters have arcs that are problems that never get solved, or that have no foreseeable solution. It’s unfortunate, but some arcs actually do end tragically or end unresolved. That mirrors “real life” as some problems in our lives do persist.  Apart from unresolved problems, though, there are characters with an arc that doesn’t end, but you DO foresee the problem being solved, or that there is definitely hope in the future, and you KNOW that the situation will improve or that the character will end up well, yay; but this book / series is too short to show us HOW this character will end up happier. Though you could write an epilogue that briefly summarizes how this secondary character succeeds in the end; some stories also have “foretold passages” where they slip in a “ten years later, she will have done XXX” to tell us what happens without actually writing about it!

One of my favorite purposes of secondary characters is that through their relationships and interactions with the protagonists, our protagonists become more complex and fleshed out characters. We know a lot more about the hero if we see his relationship with and how he interacts with his crush (the heroine), best friend, close friends, sister, teacher, enemies/ rivals, etc., than if we were only to see him interact with the heroine—the latter would feel very claustrophobic indeed if it were a novel-length story!

“It’s because of those clichéd categories that we try to round these characters out with their own goals, dreams, and changes”

Haha, as a pantser, I never deliberately round these characters out, as you know. Because to me, all characters, secondary or minor or major, are real people who ALREADY HAVE their own goals, dreams, and changes, so we just need to discover what they are; we don’t need to create them out of thin air. 😀 But I understand not all writers have such an approach, haha. (On the other hand, some characters just REFUSE to show you what their goals, dreams, and changes are, so grrr…Some characters are just more generous than others when it comes to how much they reveal to you. That’s why I have a significantly more developed hero than heroine, sigh.)

“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.”

Oh yes. Again, as a pantser, the more you hang out with a secondary character, the more you will get to know them and the more complex and non-cliched they will become to you (like with people in our “real life”.) But yeah for loss of focus and plot tangents, lol. But for my story, I’ll just call these subplots. The bad thing is that the subplots are making my story so long. The good thing is that it’s making my story more complex and rich in a good way. I had a story that was pretty straightforward and had very few subplots and few developed secondary characters; that story, you could say, was nice-and-short. HOWEVER, I found that I was rather dissatisfied with it BECAUSE it was so straightforward and short. So when it comes to writing stories, I find I actually like to write more complex stories with multiple secondary characters, subplots, etc., because they are more satisfying to read for me as a reader. However, when reading OTHER people’s books, I don’t mind either straightforward or complex stories, lol.

And I was worried for a while about the number of secondary characters and subplots I had, but later became less worried because, hey, no matter how many characters and subplots you have, it can’t be as complicated as George R.R. Martin’s, haha, so that was a comfort. Also, since my genre (martial arts genre) is conventionally very long (1000-2000 something pages, divided into multiple books), I have enough room to deal with all these subplots! That’s why it’s 1130 pages right now and STILL nowhere near the end, haha. But yeah I want to control it so that we don’t need to deal with any more subplots (unless they are connected to stuff that are already happening, or if they would be interesting/ important, e.g. significantly developing one of the major characters). This is easier said than done, though, so we will see how it goes. 😀

“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.”

Agreed. Although I tend to care MORE if they do have an arc, or their own subplot/ their own story.

“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*

Ohoho I already have at least a few secondary characters whose arc WILL continue in the sequel series! 😀 But good idea about only hinting at goals.

“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.”

Hmm actually when I get more subplots, the story I’m trying to tell changes, haha. It was originally a simpler story focusing on the romance between the hero and heroine, plus a fun and dangerous adventure story. But now with all of these other characters, friendships, and secondary character romance plots, it has become an outright romantic comedy and also friendship story. And I’ve gotten very interested in exploring the characters’ relationships with each other—that’s why I have sooo many dialogue scenes between them, many of them rather long, haha. I’m worried about the readers who don’t like reading long dialogue scenes, but on the other hand I’m very fond of these scenes because I feel like it’s in dialogues (especially long ones) that I REALLY get to see the characters’ personalities and relationships. Dialogues really develop character! You know how there are some characters that have barely any dialogue at all, and we basically only know them through narration of their backstory and actions? I feel that I don’t really “know” a character until I’ve heard him or her talk to other characters, haha.

But anyway, I feel my story is actually more interesting and complex, and substantial, now that there’s more stuff than just a straightforward focused romance plus adventure. Not that the latter type of story can’t be enjoyable to read too! Just that I’ve come to really like having multiple other characters, other friendships, and other romantic relationships to explore than to just concentrate on the hero and heroine.

“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.”

Thankfully natural and organic is very natural for pantsers to write! I can’t imagine myself “forcing” characters in; that’s like changing the story, which I can’t do.

“if appropriate, give characters a memorable feature, trait, mannerism, etc.”

I think it would also help readers remember if the secondary characters have specific relationships to other characters and/or the protagonist(s). It’s easier to remember: “hero’s sister, best friend, close friends, parents, teachers, casual friends, and ‘arch nemeses’” than hero, girl X, boy A, boys BCD, man E woman F, men G and H, boys and girls IJKLM, etc., etc. Although “mneumonic via relationships” helps, we eventually hope that the reader will remember each of those characters by their names rather than just by their relationship to the protags, haha, but we will have to be patient. There are different readers, though. Some readers will remember all those secondary character names very quickly, whilst some other readers will STILL only remember those secondary characters by their relationships with the hero/ heroine even by the end of the book, lol!

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Jami Gold October 21, 2014 at 6:17 pm

Hi Serena,

Good question about romances. The first protagonist introduced isn’t necessarily the primary protagonist, but how you tell might depend on the genre. My reply to Emerald has more information about how to figure it out, but as I realized while writing up that answer, we could theoretically have one primary protagonist for the external arc (which one “owns” the plot movement?) and one for the internal arc (which one owns the biggest movement of internal change?).

Really though, the main reason we’d care about which is which is simply to ensure that story is focused enough on the main storyline and not getting too bogged down in tangents. 🙂 The labels themselves don’t matter beyond that.

Yes! If we name a character, we’re implying they’re important in some way, or someone readers need to remember. I sometimes name extras with dialogue, just so I don’t have to come up with a “tag” like “The scarred woman said…” LOL!

Ooo, good question about dead characters. Did you ever see the TV show Twin Peaks? The Laura Palmer character was dead but extremely important to the whole story. So yes, that’s not unheard of. 🙂

That’s a great point about how we get to choose what we “omit” in stories. We often do far more research for our stories than will ever show up on the page, and the same might be said of characters. The character I demoted was meant to be a business associate who knew the hero since he was a child. Even though she’s now an extra, that history could still apply. I just don’t have to mention it. 😉

And great point too about secondary characters in romances. Yes, many series consist of each book following the romance of a secondary character of the previous book. LOL!

Love what you pointed out about how secondary characters are great ways to show certain traits, behaviors, or beliefs of our protagonist. Those interactions can be fantastic and interesting, and we see all the characters as more real.

Subplots aren’t a problem either–they don’t “steal” the focus–as long as they tie into the main storyline in some way, external or internal arc. Or as you said, if we’re writing a GRRM-style epic, we can use a much broader scope. LOL! I can see your martial arts genre falling into a similar epic style.

Yes, when I reintroduce secondary characters after they’ve been absent for several chapters, I give a “relationship tag” like so-and-so’s assistant, etc. That helps readers remember that they’ve met this character before, I think. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung October 21, 2014 at 8:25 pm

Thanks for your detailed answer! 😀 Nope I haven’t heard of that show, but when I think of dead characters who matter, I think of The Lovely Bones and Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

Hmmm external vs internal. For the external conflict, I think the VILLAINS actually drive it, hahaha, but of course they are not the protagonists…But in terms of who made them decide to confront the villains? This bunch of teenagers decided simultaneously as a team to do something about it, so woah lots of protagonists driving the same story goal!!! Lol, so I guess I shouldn’t use that definition for this…

About internal arc, um…the hero is the one who has SOME change whilst the heroine is more static, hehe. But the heroine motivates him to change, so…she kind of DRIVES the internal change, yet it is the hero who HAS the internal change? LOL then who would be the protagonist here? (Yikes why is it so hard to figure out who the primary protagonist of my story is.. )

Good point about subplots adding to the overall story goal. Well…most of my subplots don’t contribute to the external “let’s beat the bad guys” goal, but many are romantic subplots, and since it’s a romantic comedy about people getting together…Er…hopefully they sort of contribute to the internal arc of couples ending up together? Not sure if that counts as an “internal arc”, though.

Or maybe it is just an epic style where there are just a lot of characters all participating in some internal or external arc of their own…Though two or more characters often participate in the same arc together (e.g. the secondary characters involved in the same love triangle subplot.)


Love what you pointed out about how secondary characters are great ways to show certain traits, behaviors, or beliefs of our protagonist. Those interactions can be fantastic and interesting, and we see all the characters as more real.

This is a good summary of my point. :D. I love dialogue scenes between the protags and secondary characters so much!! And just dialogue scenes in general. 🙂

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Jami Gold October 22, 2014 at 3:39 pm

Hi Serena,

Well, it’s true that villains cause the external conflict, but we’re talking about who has the most at stake to overcome the antagonistic forces. LOL!

The same thing would apply to the internal arc. By “drive,” I don’t mean “cause,” but rather who has the most at stake. So yes, for an internal arc, usually the person who changes the most (because they had the most consequences to avoid (stakes) forcing them to change) would be the one “driving” that part of the story. By “drive,” we’re using the term the way we do with the phrase “narrative drive.” Like, who’s keeping the story progressing because the consequences force them to not give up. 🙂

Yes, for romances, the romance is its own arc. So scenes that push that romance arc to progress and overcome obstacles (or that create new obstacles) count. 🙂

All that said, I could see your story in particular having an epic bent. LOL! I hope that helps! Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung October 23, 2014 at 7:45 am

I see. Well for the external arc, I think the hero and heroine have equal amount of stakes there…Er…For the internal change, it’s the hero but honestly this internal change isn’t very important to the story, lol. As for the romance arc, again I think the hero and heroine both have the same amount of stakes in it, though maybe the hero a bit more because he seems even more reliant and dependent on this relationship than she is, and is consequently more paranoid about potentially losing his partner’s love, lol. So…I guess I’m still not entirely sure who drives the ex and int arcs…

Yeah my story does sound very epic-y, haha, due to its concern with so many characters though not nearly as extreme as GRRM’s lol.

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Jami Gold October 23, 2014 at 9:39 am

Hi Serena,

LOL! These are all just guidelines to help you figure out and stick to your core story. So don’t stress too much about it–especially not during the drafting phase when you’re still discovering things about the story. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Carradee October 22, 2014 at 6:03 am

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier comes to mind as another where a dead woman is all-important. The actual living woman’s name is never shared.

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Jami Gold October 22, 2014 at 3:39 pm

Hi Carradee,

Oh yes! Thanks for sharing!

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Kim October 21, 2014 at 2:43 pm

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!

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Jami Gold October 21, 2014 at 6:21 pm

Hi Kim,

Yay! I meant to email you, but I’m still having on-and-off issues with my email. :/ I’m glad you saw it!

As long as all these characters are important to this story, I think you’re fine. 🙂 The problem would be if you have a scene with, say, the blacksmith that has nothing to do with the main story or any of the related subplots.

As I mentioned in the long reply to Emerald above:

“In most cases, we’d see these characters participating in the main storyline, or we’d see them as important pieces of subplots that eventually tie into the main storyline. (And note, some subplots will tie into the external-action storyline (a subplot that helps overcome the main conflict later), and some will only tie into the internal-emotion storyline (a subplot that reinforces the emotional arc of the protagonist).) Any of those situations work well because they don’t distract from this story.”

I hope that helps. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Robin October 24, 2014 at 6:28 am

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

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Anne R. Allen October 21, 2014 at 2:44 pm

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.

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Jami Gold October 21, 2014 at 6:25 pm

Hi Anne,

My first original story was meant to have more of an epic feel, so I came up with a huge cast of characters. But in the end, they all had very little to do in this first book of a planned series. So they were irrelevant, and as experienced writers know, it’s better to “info dump” when it fits the story. 🙂

Yes, the nameless spear-carriers have been part of storytelling for a long time. LOL! Thanks for stopping by!

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Killion Slade October 21, 2014 at 4:01 pm

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! 🙂

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Jami Gold October 21, 2014 at 6:35 pm

Hi Killion,

LOL! Yes, your question is in that stack, but this post turned out much longer than I planned, so I decided to split the topics. 🙂

Ooo, great insight into how we can populate stories with a broader cast and yet not try to shoehorn them into a story with no purpose for them. Fantastic! Yes, if we want to give the impression of more depth to our story, we can find a way to reference other characters without feeling the need to give them a pointless scene, just to show their face. 🙂

So far, I haven’t written scenes from the antagonists POV for any of my paranormal romance stories, but I do make sure that I have their arc in mind when I write them so they’re not too mustache-twirling. LOL! I know other authors in my genre who have included antagonist POV scenes, though, so they can certainly work for many genres. Thanks for the comment!

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Widdershins October 21, 2014 at 8:14 pm

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

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Jami Gold October 21, 2014 at 10:06 pm

Hi Widdershins,

LOL! Yep, maybe I need you to edit my posts. 😉 Thanks for stopping by!

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Julie Musil October 22, 2014 at 9:15 am

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?

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Jami Gold October 22, 2014 at 3:44 pm

Hi Julie,

Ooo, great example! And good point, too, that sometimes we might be too close to see how the puzzle pieces fit together. Another way that good critique partners/beta readers/editors can help us, and yes, it always comes down to rewriting, revising, and editing. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

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Loni Townsend October 22, 2014 at 9:55 am

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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Jami Gold October 22, 2014 at 3:49 pm

Hi Loni,

LOL! I so understand that “so many voices in my head” issue. None of the characters from my completed stories ever go to silent mode. (Maybe that will change after I publish and their books are “set in stone,” but I doubt it. 🙂 ) And I’m always thinking of the next book too. I must be over 100 voices by this point. I’ll let you know if I hear of a group. 😉 Thanks for stopping by!

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Sonia G Medeiros October 24, 2014 at 11:35 am

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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Jami Gold October 24, 2014 at 11:59 am

Hi Sonia,

Yes! And as I mention in my post after this one, amping up the tension is an great reason to show a scene from a different character’s POV. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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April October 28, 2014 at 4:37 am

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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Jami Gold October 28, 2014 at 8:13 am

Hi April,

Yes, it’s amazing how something so basic can still make us wonder, isn’t it? I hadn’t thought through most of this until the question came in either. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Holly January 5, 2015 at 2:16 pm

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!

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Jami Gold January 5, 2015 at 2:27 pm

Hi Holly,

That’s a great way to put it: Sometimes including a character might take away from the story we’re trying to tell. Good for you in figuring that out! 🙂 Thanks for sharing your experience!

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Maggie Jones February 19, 2015 at 8:11 am

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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Jami Gold February 19, 2015 at 11:54 am

Hi Maggie,

Oh, that’s wonderful! I love how you’re looking to make it work. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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