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.

 

If you’re going to write–read

Reading gives you inspiration. Refraining from it is writing suicide–it will make your words bland.

How to Use Reading to Improve Your Writing

  • Get into the habit of reading. Read often–I would suggest at least 30 minutes a day. Log your progress and give yourself rewards.
  • Always carry a book with you. Even if you don’t think you’ll need it. Read on airplanes, long car trips, in the bathroom. Wherever.
  • Read the great authors’ works. Shakespeare. Austen. Fitzgerald. Twain. They each have their distinct style. They will teach you something new.
  • Analyze the plots, themes, characters. Why did the writer choose a certain twist? How did the writer flesh out the characters?
  • Pay attention to the sentence structure, vocabulary words, and literary devices used. How do they enhance the story?
  • Read way out of your genre. You write romance? Go read science fiction. There’s a lot you can learn from writers outside of your usual scope.
  • Enjoy reading. Don’t just read to become a better writer. Read to enjoy it.

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