How many characters do you really need?

So you’ve got your protagonist. And your antagonist. And your protagonist’s best friend. And your protagonist’s girlfriend. And your protagonist’s best friend’s girlfriend. And your protagonist’s best friend’s girlfriend’s cat. And your antagonist’s brother. And your antagonist’ brother’s girlfriend… You get the idea.

Do you really need 99 different characters, most who only play a tiny part in one scene, all who must be tracked throughout revisions with “Did I change that eye color/hair color/name/spelling/age/gender etc.?!!?”

No. Your story needs maybe a handful of characters who the reader will care about, characters who will earn the reader’s love or hatred, who will enrich the story from start to finish and enthrall readers.

An example of this unfortunate occurrence is the bestselling Warriors series, which is about wild cats. Don’t get me wrong, I love these books. But there are way too many characters–around sixty is my estimate. There’s an important character whose eye color changes three times throughout the books. There’s a minor character who changes from male to female. Um, okay, but I’m pretty sure sex reassignment surgery hasn’t been developed for cats yet.

You will think of new characters all the time. That doesn’t mean they’re automatically the next big thing that will spice up your story. Before letting them join in, make sure they belong there.

 

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6 thoughts on “How many characters do you really need?

  1. Sometimes authors have too many characters in mind and just can’t wait to write them out, so they may just lump them all in one story. It sucks, because there are some really great characters out there, but some readers do get turned off when a book has a large cast.

    • Yes, isn’t it a pity? Writers should keep in mind that the story they’re currently writing is not the last story they’ll ever write (hopefully, at least) and they can put the new character they just thought of in a different story.

  2. Great post. I definitely fall into the category of adding too many characters into stories I’m writing, but I think you are right that things are stronger when you focus on a few well-developed characters.

  3. While I firmly agree that there are some stories that have too many main and secondary characters for the reader to remember (especially if the names are foreign or made-up and take longer for the reader to process), I would argue that it depends upon the general scope and world of the story. Sure, if my short story or novella takes place in one town, then a handful of well developed characters with a couple of minor players would suffice. But what about larger worlds? I guess it all depends on editing and the flow of the story.

    Having said all that, I am, in fact, guilty of accidentally writing a character out of a novel. He walked into a cabin with a large party and never came out again! Clear evidence of the pitfall you wrote about.

    • Yes, you have a good point. Obviously a fantasy adventure would need more characters than a paperback romance. Thank you for providing a different perspective on this subject!

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