How Many Characters Do You Need?

Like the bromide about too many cooks, an overabundance of characters can spoil the novel. How many characters is too many? Well, like a lot of questions about writing, it depends. The type of story, the genre, the plot, can all affect how many characters show up in a novel. An epic like the Harry Potter series has a castle full of characters. A “quiet” novel that explores interpersonal relationships may have only a few.

I came across a helpful exercise by Janice Hardy in a June 2013 blog post.

Hardy’s exercise goes like this: Take a sheet of paper. Make two boxes in the middle, equally spaced apart. Write the name of the protagonist in one box and the name of the antagonist in the other. Write the names of other characters below the protagonist and above the antagonist, depending on which characters are connected to with character. Next, draw a solid line if the character is directly connected to the protagonist or the antagonist and a dotted line if indirectly connected. Finally, draw lines between the characters who are directly or indirectly related to each other.

“If you had a hard time finding room for all your boxes, that’s a red flag you might have too many characters,” she wrote. “Same if you have a lot of characters who have zero connections to your protagonist, but connections to other characters in the book. Lots of people with dotted lines to one person could be ones you can combine (like those extra thugs).”

The real value of this exercise, Hardy writes, is that it “forces you to think about how the various characters are connected.”

It is also visual. If your paper is cluttered with boxes, you just might have too many characters.

There are two main problems with having an abundance of characters, blogger and author KM Weiland writes.

First, when there are too many characters, the reader may be unable to keep track of who is who. Second, a writer who introduces too many characters runs the risk of fragmenting the narrative.

Most of the posts I’ve read on this subject advise something like this: How many characters do you need? Just enough to tell the story. That doesn’t fully answer the question, though. The real test for me is whether each character fulfills a purpose, either large of small. For example, let’s say the main character does something stupid as a teen-ager and is arrested. The cop who makes the arrest serves one purpose. He doesn’t need to reappear, unless he decides to mentor the young man.

Every main character needs a supporting cast. This cast can be small or large. It may include the following: sidekicks, mentors, confidants, spouses, siblings, parents, teachers, co-workers, friends, enemies. You get the picture. The writer may not choose to include everyone on the list; she will choose carefully depending on the genre and the nature of the story.

A related question is how many Point of View (POV) characters should a novel include? Personally I have trouble keeping up with more than five or six POV characters, yet I’ve read stories with as many as nine and the writer was able to make the narrative work. However, it takes tremendous skill to juggle nine or 10 POV characters without diluting the narrative.

What about you? How many characters do you create for each story? How many is too many?

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “How Many Characters Do You Need?

  1. K.M. Weiland

    Good post! And thanks so much for linking to my site. I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

  2. Because I don’t plot outright, but rather let the plots arise from my characters, I think that my supporting cast also gets created by the main characters, out of their personal needs– mains who I more or less dash out a line or two about at first, in response to some initial situation. You could say I don’t consciously create characters– I stay out of the deliberate part until they have established themselves fairly well, at which pint I can streamline or deepen them with some conscious attention.

    For me, too many is just when someone is there because I felt I needed them to fulfill a specific plot point– they get tossed as soon I as notice!

  3. When I write my rough draft I usually keep the characters to a bare minimum. Because it’s only the rough draft I spend most of the time creating the main characters because the story revolves around them. After I’ve completed the first draft I go back through and add in supporting characters to flesh out the story, but during my first draft I like to focus solely on my main characters. Great post!!! 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment. That is a sound method. There is always the chance a writer will end up with too many characters after the first draft. My rule is to only create a character with a purpose in the story. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. schillingklaus

    “Too many characters” simply does not exist in my book. Some hundreds or more characters, inhabiting excessively twisted labyrinthine plots, do not scare me at all. Of course, as it is prevalently crossover fanfiction, I do not have to come up with all of them, and they get stereotyped anyways.
    Hardy’s exercise only makes sense in character-driven works, such as chick flicks.

    • Thanks for your comment. I make a distinction between major characters, secondary characters and incidental characters. When it comes to major characters, I would say eight or nine is my limit and that goes for all major genres. A reader simply cannot keep track of the various and sundry traits and motivations of more than a handful of characters. And too many characters dilutes the story, in my opinion. Thanks for stopping by.

      • schillingklaus

        Readers with sufficient inteelectual capabilities have no problem keeping track of a huge amount of characters or readiung a fragmented narrative.

        As for POV, I have finally settled for editorial omniscient narration, so there is only one Point of view covering all characters.

      • Thanks for your comments.

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