“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:
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.
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.
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!