Determining the Perfect Number of Characters
By: Donna Schlachter
Now that you have your cast of characters, you’ll want to be sure they’re all necessary. And that they won’t overwhelm the reader. Or bog down the plot lines.
There are several other reasons not to have too many characters. Too large a cast, and you won’t have enough words per character to round them out and develop their personal arc, which can leave the reader feeling unfulfilled. Another reason to cut or consolidate characters is because your word count is too high. On average, each character other than the hero and heroine will add another ten thousand words to your manuscript.
Distill the Numbers
So before discussing how to consolidate your cast, let’s look at how the act of distilling the numbers will strengthen your stories.
- You can simplify your story by reusing story elements, keeping your story elements closely linked, and maintains familiar tropes and plots so your readers don’t have to learn anything new.
- Fewer characters usually means your story is more efficient when it comes to writing your story and staying on track.
- Limiting or reducing the number of characters will mean you spend more time on each character.
- Oftentimes, cutting the cast will keep the players in the same place, limiting the number of settings a reader has to recall.
- Using fewer characters also means reducing the number of points-of-view, so readers feel like they get to know characters better and there’s less hopping from scene to scene. Don’t overwhelm readers by introducing all the characters in the first few pages.
- With fewer characters, you can have characters involved in scenes more often, so readers don’t forget who is who.
So how can you know when you have the perfect number of characters? When you can put any two individuals in a situation and still hold the reader’s interest. That’s right. All of the characters should be so connected that it won’t be a huge leap to pick two from a hat and write a scene that makes perfect sense.
Some argue that seven characters is the best number, while others insist on fewer. However, if each of your seven characters fulfills a particular role, then that might be a number to aim for. While they might be labeled differently depending on the genre, here is a list of typical characters to choose from. Please note: you don’t need two of any of these as main or secondary characters, except if there are a hero and a heroine.
- The hero/heroine – the character the story is most about and who has the most to lose if they don’t achieve their goal
- The lancer – shares goal with hero/heroine, but proceeds in a different way.
- The Big One – often physically impressive and doesn’t mind throwing his/her weight around. But they aren’t long term overcomers. Minor victories are theirs; they don’t have the skills to win.
- The Smart One – foil to the Big One. Uses brain to overcome, not brawn. Skills are specialties and used only in that sense.
- The Old One – wealth of experience, but damaged as a result. Can come close to winning, but not quite by themselves.
- The Young One – has a lot to learn; makes everyone else look good. Good reason for another character to explain the jargon a reader might not catch first time around.
- The Funny One – manipulates the mood of the reader and other characters. Relieves tension after a scary scene.
- The Spiritual One – a peacemaker, sometimes with a unique outlook to diffuse tension or educate the other characters. Often is formed from a conglomeration of The Funny One and the Old One. But sometimes is just plain weird.
One thing to keep in mind is that it doesn’t matter what each character does individually, but how they work together. That process starts with the hero/heroine. When you define them skillfully, contrasting them to other characters, you will see ways to up the ante between the characters. Defining other characters through the hero/heroine also provides areas where they’re in agreement, and highlights places where they disagree. This tension is important to keep the story moving, make sure characters are changing along their story arc, and also to give you opportunities to set up those danger points that will ultimately lead to the Black Moment.
Sometimes authors conjure up a character they absolutely love. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as the character serves a purpose. Giving them a point of view doesn’t give them purpose. Every character must help or hinder the hero/heroine in reaching (or not) their goal. When we love that character, we write them into more scenes. Sometimes, without realizing it, that secondary (non-main) character ends up having more scenes than the main character(s). This leads to a loss of focus, too many plot tangents, and an unfulfilling story.
How Many Characters Do We Need?
That depends on the story. But here’s a check list:
- Word count – shorter stories need one or two main characters, and one antagonist. Along with a main plot and perhaps one small subplot, there’s a 30,000-50,000 story. For a sweeping epic drama, of course, you’ll need more secondary characters and subplots.
- Genre – mystery readers expect the sleuth, the antagonist/villain, a victim, and several suspects as secondary characters. One or two related subplots along with their own secondary characters will bring the book to 65,00-85,000 words. Historical books often have the hero/heroine, antagonist/villain, perhaps a handful of secondary characters, and a host of walk-on characters with minor roles. Other genres have their own rules. Read books in the genre you want to write in and take notes.
- Style – romance and cozy mysteries like to create a sense of intimacy, which requires a smaller-scale cast, while a fantasy or international thriller requires more characters to create that sweeping or far-reaching mood.
How Many Point of View Characters?
Of course, your hero/heroine will always have a point of view in your—their—story. Choosing whether the antagonist/villain has a point of view depends on the genre. In romance, usually not. In mystery and thriller – yes.
Eliminate any viewpoint characters who don’t have anything to do with each other. Make the characters serve multiple purposes.
Make sure each point of view characters has a unique voice so the reader knows who is talking without having to attribute. Having too many might leave you struggling to differentiate between them.
Kill Your Darlings
So you’ve done your best, but you have too many characters. What to do?
- is this character necessary to the story?
- Am I telling the story from the proper point of view?
- Is this character more important than the lead?
If the answer to any of these questions is Yes, you need to cut the character. Or you could combine them with another character and serve two purposes. For example, the Lancer could also be the firefighter with the karate skills needed to help the hero escape the locked room.
Sometimes you’ll just know when you have the right number of characters. And sometimes you’ll need to cut or consolidate the secondary characters so each one has the proper amount of time on the page; doesn’t overtake the hero/heroine; and contributes to the hero/heroine’s story arc.
A hybrid author, Donna Schlachter writes squeaky clean historical and contemporary suspense. She has been published more than 50 times in books; is a member of several writers groups; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, traveling extensively for both. She humbly admits she doesn’t always get the number of characters perfect, so she often spends a lot of time re-writing.
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