This is another interesting question from my postbag:
I’m writing an adventure story that takes place over a journey, and we meet many characters. I’ve been told my novel has too many, but when I look at comparison titles, big casts are de rigeur. Kidnapped has 15 named characters, though some are very minor. Treasure Island has six main characters and 15 or more minor named characters. The Silver Sword has six main characters and the same number of minor. The Hobbit has even more. How many should I have?
It’s true that journey stories tend to have large casts. In that respect they’re like the family saga, which begins with a core of characters and gathers and loses key players along the way. The constant flux of personnel is one of the pleasures of the genre. Who’s going to join? Who might leave – or even, die?
But it ain’t what you do. It’s the way you do it. Some of us can handle big casts; some can’t. So what are the signs that you’re spreading your story between too many people?
Here are the key symptoms I’ve noticed in manuscripts I’ve edited or advised on.
1 The characters don’t have enough to do. The writer knows we need to visit the main characters regularly, but when we do the scenes are dull. The characters will often be sitting around having inconsequential conversations, doing something uninteresting, or repeating a previous emotional beat. (Repetition can be good, of course, but it can also make the story seem stuck.) What should the characters be doing instead? They should be having experiences that make us curious or tug our emotions – and, importantly, we should have a sense of progress. What happens should seem new, or if it repeats, it should seem to confirm that the story situation is getting more extreme (which is progress). Of course the characters are allowed some opportunities for reflection and relaxation, but most of the time they should be increasing our interest in them.
2 Characters disappear. Sometimes writers handle this problem in the opposite way – the characters vanish for long periods because there’s nothing for them to do. But there’s a danger we may forget them.
3 The characters are too similar. The writer hasn’t developed them distinctively enough – they have similar outlooks, tastes, backgrounds, dialogue styles. Even their dilemmas might be the same. Of course, you might be making a deliberate feature of this similarity, and that’s fine. Perhaps you want to show compatibility, or that two rivals are the same even though they wear uniforms of opposing sides. But when a writer is finding their cast unmanageable they tend to create clones unintentionally.
Well it’s obvious – combine some of your characters.
Here’s where you can get creative. List them all and look for the most interesting splices. If a character is marking time before their interesting bit happens, merge them with someone who has a more active role. Revel in the possibilities to generate more story, and especially look for personal dilemmas – if you have a forensic pathologist and a murder suspect, could they be the same person? Could the lady’s maid also be the young girl who was raped in the dark lane? Could the gentle aunt who dispenses cake and sympathy also be the wartime spy?
And consider their internal landscape. Two sketchy characters could be merged into one three-dimensional, flawed, conflicted, internally contradictory character. Again, look for the unexpected – especially in their desires and story goals. (You might like this piece from the Telegraph about Pete Docter, writer of Pixar’s Inside Out, where he talks about whittling his cast down to manageable numbers)
There’s no hard and fast rule about how many main characters you can manage. It’s as many as you, with your particular story circumstances, can handle. If you can give 10 people proper significant roles and arcs, you can have 10 main characters. If you can find only 3 significant roles and arcs, you have 3 main characters.
Thanks for the pic philhearing
There’s a lot more advice on developing characters – and detailed questionnaires to help you create distinctive people – in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel.
Let’s discuss! Have you discovered you had too many characters in a novel? What made you realise? How did you tackle it, and did it strengthen the story? Have you found you have a personal limit for the number of characters you can handle?
#1 by phantomwriter143 on June 28, 2015 - 7:06 pm
Wonderful advice! I’m pinning and bookmarking this page. I have an overall large cast of characters because it’s a several-book series, and knowing how to manage them all is definitely one aspect of storytelling I struggle with. Thank you for sharing!
#2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 28, 2015 - 7:28 pm
Thanks, Phantom – and good luck with the hordes!
#3 by Andrew Toynbee on June 28, 2015 - 8:03 pm
Great advice, Roz. I did this twice in my debut novel, once at the behest of my editor, and the other when I read similar advice to the above. The story was stronger and (IMHO) improved as a result.
#4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 28, 2015 - 11:39 pm
Thanks for stopping by, Andrew.
#5 by DRMarvello on June 28, 2015 - 11:50 pm
Roz asked: “Have you discovered you had too many characters in a novel? What made you realise? How did you tackle it, and did it strengthen the story?”
I did worry about having too many characters in my first novel. They seemed to proliferate with every scene. I didn’t do anything deliberate to tackle it, but I think the structure of the novel made it work out okay by accident. The story is sort of a series of quests, having different supporting characters important to each part. A central unifying plot thread ties it all together.
It took me until my third book to figure out the concept of “merging” on my own. One of my personal writing guidelines is now “Favor reuse of an existing character over the creation of a new one,” which is a similar idea.
I discovered that every new character adds a potential source of passions and motivations that must be considered within the context of the story. Two character development tools tipped me to this issue. The first was the following question: if this were character X’s story, what would it be about? The second was the idea that every character is the hero of his/her own story (this goes for the bad guys, too). When you think about characters that way, it’s easier to make them come alive and contribute in a unique way. Adding new fully-developed characters like that also increases the complexity of the story exponentially. That complexity might be a great thing if you are having trouble coming up with content. It might be a terrible thing if your story is already careening out of control. (I’ve had both happen.)
Roz asked: “Have you found you have a personal limit for the number of characters you can handle?”
I’m a High Fantasy writer, so having a large cast isn’t necessarily bad. As long as I stick to my guideline of only inventing a new character when I can’t reuse an existing one, I seem to stay out of trouble. I haven’t found a hard limit on the number of characters I can handle overall, but I try not to juggle the motivations of more than three in any given scene. Other characters may be present, but their contributions are minimal.
#6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 29, 2015 - 3:00 pm
Hi Daniel! As usual, you contribute a case-study essay that’s very useful.
The ‘reuse’ principle is great – and also applies to other story ingredients – locations, events… almost anything, in fact. And you’re right that your genre is one where a large cast won’t be as off-putting as it might be in, say, a suspense novel which has more of a pressure-cooker feel. Keep on keeping on!
#7 by Nicola on July 4, 2015 - 8:00 am
I’m writing a High Fantasy novel/series at the moment, too, and a couple of months ago I read something very similar to what you state, particularly emphasising the ability to develop personalities for these characters and relationships with your main character(s). I’ve found it’s utterly transformed my story by tightening up the plot and increasing the tension in scenes with people I *thought* were bit parts but have actually now got history with my protagonists.
#8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 4, 2015 - 5:57 pm
Glad it struck a chord – thanks for stopping by, Nicola!
#9 by DRMarvello on July 5, 2015 - 2:25 pm
Hi Nicola. I know what you mean. The story feels more vibrant when every relationship in your story “matters” to one degree or another.
One of tools I now use is a “passions and motivations overview.” All characters who have a speaking role get at least a paragraph on how they feel about what’s happening in the story. For characters with important roles, I often write several paragraphs that include how they feel about the other characters and what they want to see happen (and why) as events unfold. Writing scenes involving those characters seems so much easier when I start with a clear understanding of their passions and motivations.
As a side-effect, I think the P&M overview has helped me do more showing and less telling. If I’ve recorded the characters’ P&M in my notes, I’m more inclined to let the characters reveal themselves through their speech and actions rather than try to explain it in narrative or with the observations of other characters.
#10 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 6, 2015 - 5:39 pm
A P&M overview? What a great idea! And naming it like that makes it sound formal, like something you have to go through at work. Thanks, Daniel!
#11 by DRMarvello on July 6, 2015 - 7:40 pm
You like the P&M overview? Cool! I’m so glad I could give something back. Between your blog and your NYN books, you’ve given me so many ideas that I’ll be forever in your debt.
#12 by Book Club Mom on June 29, 2015 - 12:57 am
This is great advice – thank you!
#13 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 29, 2015 - 3:00 pm
Thanks – and thanks for taking the trouble to say so!
#14 by Karen Lynne Klink on June 29, 2015 - 1:54 am
In my antebellum novel have two families interacting and a number of important servant/slaves, then a few important soldier/friends during the war. Plenty characters, and your post has been a tremendous help.
#15 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 29, 2015 - 3:01 pm
Thank you, Karen. I think the clue is, as you say, to pick out a few people who’ll be important and let the rest fade into soft focus.
#16 by Ileandra Young on June 29, 2015 - 7:21 am
My current WIP had way too many characters! In this round of deep editing I combined two into one and dumped another entirely! Muuuch cleaner! 😉
#17 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 29, 2015 - 3:02 pm
Good going, Ileandra!
#18 by Carol Riggs on July 1, 2015 - 9:20 pm
Great thoughts to ponder! I’ve had too many characters before, and the main problem was that I introduced them all in one clump, in Chapter 1. So–as you suggested–I combined two characters; that worked really well. I also deleted another character and called two more “the twins” rather than giving them specific names (they were fairly minor and didn’t need names for readers to try to remember).
#19 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 1, 2015 - 11:32 pm
Thanks, Carol! Isn’t it amazing how such a simple idea is so effective? Nice to see you here.
#20 by Alexander M Zoltai on July 4, 2015 - 4:50 pm
Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
This past Monday, I published a post about Roz Morris’ book, “Nail Your Novel”.
Today I’m re-blogging one of her posts about main characters 🙂
#21 by juliecround on July 5, 2015 - 9:14 am
Great post. My beta reader said I didn’t need one character in my last book, and he was right. I only put him in because it was a sequel but he didn’t have anything useful to contribute to the plot of the second book so I removed him.
I do find lots of characters confusing,especially if they act and speak like each other and think we need to be able to follow the main protagonists without distractions, but I don’t read fantasy so perhaps it is allowed when someone is on a quest and meets and defeats enemies.
That tip about not naming minor characters was a good one. Happy writing!
#22 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 6, 2015 - 5:41 pm
Thanks, Julie! And isn’t it funny how we sometimes don’t spot we’ve included somebody who doesn’t have much of a role? I like your example here of the character who tagged along from the prequel even though he didn’t have much to do.
#23 by colleenlynn99 on January 19, 2021 - 10:26 am
Reblogged this on Cornelia Smith Fick Author and commented:
My supervisor told me I have too many characters in my WIP and I came across this post. I like the idea of combining some of my characters. Thus far I have only looked at deleting them and somehow it didn’t work.