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.
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?