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.
- 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 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.
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.
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?
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.)
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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