How to Tell If You Have Too Many Characters

How to Tell If You Have Too Many Characters

posted in: Storytelling | 16

“Do I have too many characters?” you may wonder, biting your nails as you scrutinize your fictional cast.

It’s good that you’re asking, because oversized casts can cause hefty problems. Having too many characters can bog down the plot, confuse your readers, and even lessen readers’ overall enjoyment of the story.

Yet, in epic genres like fantasy and sci-fi adventure, a larger cast is often called for to accomplish the scope and breadth of the narrative. Your quest needs a fellowship. Your spaceship needs a crew.

How can you tell if you’ve gone overboard with character count? And how can you juggle a necessarily-sizable cast without it damaging your story?

Today we will tackle both of these questions.

Be warned: You will survive reading this article… but your characters might not.

Q1: How many characters should you have?

Here’s my rule of thumb that may be hard to swallow:

Your cast should always be smaller than you think.

You might be surprised, but you probably have at least one character that could be combined with another or eliminated entirely. Test it yourself. Write out a list of your characters, along with their roles in the story. Do they have any redundant or overlapping roles? Could the story still be told without them? Are they only there to die?

If so, you most likely need to cut them.

Now, I hear you sniffling and frantically protesting, “But – but – don’t make me remove Melissa. I love Melissa. She’s my favorite character!”

Sorry to lay it on you straight, but Melissa might be a detriment to your book. Beware of getting attached to characters who don’t improve the story. Not only do they create dead weight, but they detract attention from the important characters, making it harder for readers to focus on (and enjoy) the cast members that actually matter.

But, a word of encouragement: You can always save Melissa for another book! (I had to do this with an early draft of City of Reckoning. I removed an extraneous character I loved, but I found a way to add him back – more meaningfully – in a later book. Hurrah!)

Why does this matter?

The smaller the cast, the more powerful the characters. Your readers will have time to get to know each character more deeply, and to care about each of them more intimately. Also, you’ll have more room to play with character interactions and group dynamics.

This is specifically true for books. Movies and TV can get away with larger casts because we remember faces far better than we remember names. If we’re watching a show, we won’t forget “that guy with the red beard”, but if we’re reading a book we may forget who “Benron” is. If readers can’t keep track of all the characters, they’ll become frustrated and confused. This is why it’s essential to keep your cast as light as possible.

If you still need to be convinced, read The Road, a devastating novel about a father and son surviving in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. For most of the book, the father and son are the only characters. Because of this, their close relationship is developed a heart-rending, unforgettable way.

Q2: What if you need a lot of characters?

Sometimes, even after you’ve tested for duplicate roles, you’ll find that a story simply needs a large cast. But you still face the same risks of reader frustration and disinterest. How can you avoid these problems?

There are several ways to make a beefy cast easier to swallow:

Trick 1: Introduce characters slowly.

Never introduce large numbers of characters at once. It’s ideal to present one or two new people at a time. Give your readers plenty of time to adjust and become comfortable with these cast members before introducing one or two more.

For example, in The Fellowship of the Ring, there are nine major characters that make up the titular fellowship. In the film version, Frodo and Gandalf are introduced first, then Bilbo (not a fellowship member but still essential to the plot), then Pippin and Merry, then Sam, then Aragorn.

Each character gets at least an extended scene or two before another major player is introduced, and each introduction is memorable. By the time we reach the council at Rivendell, we’ve met most of the nine; only Legolas, Gimli, and Boromir remain. If we had to meet all nine at once, we would never be able to keep them straight, nor would we care about each of them so much.

Trick #2: Split them up.

Just because you have a lot of characters doesn’t mean they all have to be in the same room. Notice again in Lord of the Rings how the nine fellowship members are not together very often, or for very long. It takes a while before the fellowship even forms; and soon, it splinters into smaller groups with different storylines. These storylines become individually easier to follow.

This is not a hard, solid rule, but a good size to aim for is two to three characters in a group. This number allows for more intimate, dynamic interactions, and gives each character a chance to take center stage.

If your plot doesn’t allow for split storylines, at least try not to have all your characters interacting at once. You can still isolate smaller groups in individual scenes. Have characters pair up – or develop cliques – whenever possible. Not only does this reflect real human behavior, but it gives readers less characters to keep track of at once.

Trick #3: Don’t name them.

This trick is for when you have a lot of minor characters. It’s tempting to give names to every side character you create, but remember: Names are hard to remember. Most people struggle with names. It’s unlikely your characters will even remember minor characters’ names, so why expect that of your readers?

Sometimes we refer to people in our heads as “that guy with the red beard” or “that girl with the purple jacket”, if we haven’t known them for very long. It’s totally okay to step into your main character’s head and refer to minor characters this way, too. Readers will have an easier time remembering “Red Beard” or “Purple Jacket Girl” than “Benron” or “Tracy”.

Let them focus on remembering the main characters, and keep minor characters in their periphery.

A final warning…

If you’re writing a series, there’s something you need to beware of:

Cast creep.

Dun, dun, DUN!

Cast creep is what I call the strange phenomenon in which, over the course of a series, the number of characters slowly expands until it eats the readers whole. Please, be kind to your readers. Gently (or not so gently) kill off characters as you go, in order to keep your cast nice and slim.

Just kidding. You don’t have to kill your characters, per se. (Although that can be an effective solution.) Just be careful and aware of how many characters you’re adding. Split up storylines when you can, if it improves the plot.

Or, just… don’t add the characters. Build on the ones you already have. It’s these characters that your readers are in love with in the first place, anyway; they’re the reason they keep coming back to your books. They will almost always care more about the original cast, so don’t add to it unless you need to.

Conclusion

When developing a cast for your story, it’s best to go small. This is especially true for books, since names are harder to remember than faces. But even when you can’t shrink your cast, there are ways to compensate and make it manageable. Introducing characters slowly, breaking them up into groups, and removing unimportant names can all help. No matter what you do, make sure you have a solid, undeniable reason for every character that exists.

For discussion…

Have you ever had a hard time keeping track of characters in a book? What are some of your favorite stories that have tiny casts? Share in the comments below!

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16 Responses

  1. Jonathan King
    | Reply

    Good stuff, and it’s definitely helping with my current WIP. It’s a superhero novel, and I’ve been feeling for a while like it’s overcrowded between the hero team (down to seven characters from the original fourteen) and the organization of villains they fight. Especially since I’m targeting a younger audience, that probably needs to be trimmed down even more. Thanks for the suggestions!

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      I’m so glad this was helpful!! Hero teams are another of those examples that can easily become too large. Best of luck!

  2. Inara
    | Reply

    I only have about 5-6 main characters. Five, technically, since they do most of the stuff in the plot but one is important to the main character and is introduced later. She’s sort of a side character. I do, however have several side characters. Maybe ten? Six? Twelve? Oh, dear, is my cast too small?

  3. Cait @ Paper Fury
    | Reply

    OKAY I OFFICIALLY LOVE THIS POST! And I’m actually quite pleased with myself because I basically always follow these tips already! I’m, um, very good at keeping my casts slim during series because of…um…so many deaths. I actually had a sequel planned for a book but I killed 80% OF THE CAST FROM BOOK 1, so the sequel basically could not happen. There was no one left to party. (I may have problems…but shh.)
    And I am in HUGE favour of introducing characters slowly. This is why I love heist stories! Because usually they have to collect the crew so by the end it’s okay that there’s 8 people, because you’ve been introduced to them one-by-one. #win
    Anyhow, I tend to write small casts…unless I’m writing a fantasy hhahah. But in my most recent contemporary there are only 4 important characters. My brain is like a small grapefruit snow cone and can only handle small amounts becuase you gotta name them all too UARGH. Writing is hard.😂😉

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      AH THANK YOU!! 😀 Hahahaha, yes I can see how you’re already on track with this. We all know you don’t shy away from killing characters. x’D I mean, I haven’t even read any character deaths of yours yet (… technically… sort of… yeah we’ll just leave it at that…), but you’re always talking about it on social media.

      YOU KILLED OFF 80% OF THE CAST. x’D Haha this miiiiight be a problem? Except now I’m more curious to read that book, so maybe it’s not? ;D I’m actually a huge fan of character deaths, as a writer and a reader, soo bring it on.

      And yes, same, I get overwhelmed easily too, so I naturally want to introduce characters slowly. That sure helps! 😉

  4. azanthony
    | Reply

    Words of wisdom in here, well said! I couldn’t agree more about keeping a cast as slim as possible. It all ties in to that final word count, as well. Unnecessary characters mean unnecessary words, means fluff, means more stuff to cut at the end. Better to just try and avoid that from the outset.

    I think I’m lucky in that the novel I’m currently querying had a rather small cast (probably because it only came from one character’s POV). The sequel will probably expand the cast some, but I think if I lean to any side of the fence it’s to have too small a cast.

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Yes, very true! Extra characters = extra fluff = extra words. Cutting the cast helps with cutting the overall length, and with just making the story more lean and focused.

      I totally agree. I’d rather have a cast be too small than too large. You can always add onto it… but it’s much harder to manage casts that are already too large!

  5. Shannon Noel Brady
    | Reply

    Great tips, Brianna! But you always have great tips. 🙂 I have a pretty small cast in my current book. The largest amount of characters spending extended time together at once is 4 (there are more characters but they appear elsewhere), and all 4 are meaningful to the plot, but even with just 4 I find myself occasionally getting overwhelmed with showing what each is doing and including them all in interactions. I know I don’t need to pay attention to EVERYone at EVERY moment, but I don’t want someone straying into the background. They’re all distinct personalities who want their say! Hehe. I can’t imagine having to deal with more than that at a time. Some characters would inevitably come out less vivid, because they can’t all engage equally in a scene. I’d rather have less characters who are more vivid than the reverse.

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Thank you, Shannon! ^_^ And I agree with everything you’re saying. It sounds like you have a great cast size! ;D And yes, it can get overwhelming trying to keep track of lots of characters, particularly if they’re all distinct and important (as they should be). I think when a character starts to fade into the background, well, that’s a clue that maybe they weren’t needed there in the first place. 🙂

  6. […] Brianna @ Story Port has advice on how to tell if you have too many characters. (I say kill ’em all off. Her post is a lot more logical though.) […]

  7. Kate Marie
    | Reply

    Thank you so much for this! I’m always telling my little brother to downsize his cast of characters and yet, just recently, my cast has expanded in a big way. These tips will be vitally useful over the upcoming month!

  8. Kyanne Skelton
    | Reply

    I have a character who I am considering dropping, however he is essential to the development of the heroine. Without him, readers may not understand the underlying characteristics that connect them to her. I am not sure what to do, since i have six main protagonists.

  9. Zainab Thompson
    | Reply

    “The Enemy” series by Charlie Higson is definitely one with a huge assortment of characters. The Enemy (book 1) was the first book I’d ever read that had so many characters I had to make a “cast list bookmark”; essentially pair up each name to an actor/actress’s face so I could keep track of them all. Granted, he does kill off a LOT of them, but it was still pretty difficult for me, especially when the survivors would mention their dead friends or something along those lines.

    However, thinking back, I *do* notice that he used tricks #1 and #2 a lot, which did help to differentiate between said characters.

    I’ve been reading a lot of the articles on your blog for the past hour or so now, and I LOVE your writing tips. I originally came for inspiration for a short story that I want to submit for a scholarship, but I got distracted by your other stuff and I’m honestly really glad I did. I learned a lot that I’m definitely going to remember in the future. 🙂 Thank you!

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      That sounds like it WOULD be hard to keep up! Yikes! :O At least he did use some of those tricks to make it more manageable. I’m glad you were able to recognize them in action! ^_^

      Oh my goodness… that has got to be one of the best compliments you could give me as a blogger. Hehe, to be a helpful distraction is the pinnacle of what I aim for! Thank you so much for taking the time to comment and let me know you were enjoying my posts, and learning from them. That really means a lot! ^_^

  10. Kyashi
    | Reply

    I have a cast of six men, and one woman at this time. But I am wanting to make a series with these characters. Do I just name some of them until the book they are involved in is written, and maybe just something brief if they are needed in the plot?
    As they live together, so there might be interaction between them at times. So it would be hard to not have them around if just even briefly. Unless you have a better idea for me.

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