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.



Create a Character

Do NOT. Start. Off. With. A. Physical. Appearance. Or. Name.

Why not?

Because maybe you decide your protagonist’s name has to be Jonathan. But every single Jonathan you’ve ever known is short-tempered. Or maybe your antagonist has red hair. And every red-haired person you’ve ever met is generous. The generalizations you’ve built up will affect your characters.

Start, instead, by giving them a need  or a problem. What does he or she want? Love, courage, confidence, a high school diploma? What does he or she want to avoid? Pain, humiliation, poverty, spiders? Many good plots involve the protagonist overcoming the thing he wants to avoid to gain the thing he wants most.

Make your character suffer. Instead of spraining his ankle, break it. Instead of having the evil stepmother give in and let Cinderella go to the ball at the last second, have her lock Cinderella in the attic and throw the key down a cliff.

Here are a list of questions you can use to develop a character:  (male gender as default)

  1. What is the gender?
  2. What is the setting?
  3. Who is the enemy?
  4. Who helps the character with his problems?
  5. How did the character make the enemy?
  6. What is the one thing the character would do anything to avoid? How does he avoid it?
  7. What is the one thing the character would do anything to obtain? How does he obtain it?
  8. What is the name and physical description?