Saturday, April 10, 2010

Number of characters in a novel

Is there a limit?

I've always enjoyed novels with varied and interesting characters, each having varied and conflicting interests, and with story lines that intersect in surprising ways.

Recently, though, I've come across a few books which advise writers to limit the number of main and supporting characters to the lowest possible minimum, and to collapse two roles into one whenever possible. This is to avoid cluttering the story with needless detail. And while I do understand the need to eliminate unnecessary details from a story, I can't help think that my supporting characters (both the helpful and the antagonistic ones) add to, rather than take away from, the overall story.

Am I delusional to think this way? Should I be murdering more of my darlings? And how do other writers determine when to eliminate a beloved character?


  1. I also have read a few books which recommended one main character and only two other key characters. I think, for some books, depending on length really, that's fine but the longer the story, the more fun it is to get wrapped in with your favorite supporting character.

    I view through the eyes of TV. Have yo ever seen Lost and/or Flash Forward? Both shows have a ton of characters but Lost does extensive character development. We know each other the characters on a personal level and love them for their flaws. With Flash Forward, we have no idea who the characters are. There is so much missing from them personally that it's frustrating.

    If you have a lot of characters, you really have to make sure you are telling each of their stories well, having a bunch of characters just for the sake of it, is just going to clutter your story line.

  2. I struggle with this. When I consolidated a character one time, she lost her unique voice.

    I wound up deleting the character all together. She lives in a file called "cuts." Maybe some day she will live on!

  3. @Liz: Exactly. I think it's fun for fans of fiction to have lots of characters to connect with, assuming the characters are developed and the story is long enough to support them all.

    @Anthony. I think that sounds right. The "uniqueness" of the character can be lost when the character is really a mishmash of two or more characters. Maybe your deleted character will be the star of her own story some day!

  4. I've heard it said that the way to make a short story into a novel, is to add more characters. However, there definitely is a limit. Too many characters results in too many extraneous words to make those characters unique, or even interesting. I try to limit myself to 3-4 main characters and as many supporting characters as needed to give the story life.

  5. Hack those darlings up with a machete and don't look back.

    I recently read a Very Bad Book that had about 20 side characters. Maybe more. Initially I paid attention to them, wondering what they were going to show me about the main character.

    After about 10 of them, I stopped paying attention to them because they were only shoved into the story to show one aspect of the MC.
    This one shows she has compassion.
    This one shows she has friends.
    This one shows she has enemies.
    This one shows she has a past.
    This one shows she has a mentor.
    This one shows she is a boss.

    Eventually the story and the characters became as boring as that list was. Limit the side characters to (my completely arbitrary number of) six. Make them as complex and interesting as your MC so they not only have a purpose in your story, they have their own purpose in life.

  6. So long as they are there to fulfil a meaningful role, keep them. That role might be in the main plot, or as a reflection on it, or in a subplot.

    I like to think of storytelling as being a bit like shining a big spotlight. All these characters have their lives going on in the dark, but it's only the ones that fall into the spotlight of the story we're trying to tell that get attention.

  7. I've read 10 or fewer. The idea of combining two characters into one is daunting to me b/c each of my characters very much have life of their own, but I get the point and I'm open to it in the future.
    ~ Wendy

  8. I'm married to a scientist, so the idea of Occam's Razor is forever tattooed on my brain. The idea of multitudinous characters seems profligate to me; they each need their purpose and role.

    That said, I write books that deal with small casts to start. If I ever ventured into epic fantasy, it might be a different story, but Occam would still apply. :)

  9. I am going to prove that I am totally weird and say that the thing i most dislike about Lost is the huge cast. I get frustrated with all the flash backs and forwards and histories and inter-relations. I just want to know WHAT HAPPENS NEXT???? I still watch though, so I guess they are doing it right!
    Ditto for books, too many characters can muddy up the plot. Unless you are an amazing character writer of-course.
    Not sure what my point is...;)


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