How Many Characters Should A Novel Have?

Standout Books is supported by its audience, if you click and purchase from any of the links on this page, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. We only recommend products we have personally vetted. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.

Characters are the heart of a story, the engine that drives them and the feature which sticks longest in the reader’s mind.

As with any powerful device, it’s important to control your use of characters. One absorbing character is iconic, three is brilliant, five could leave room for nothing else.

So how many characters should be in your story? While there can be no definitive number, there are some relatively concrete rules to deciding how many characters you should be using.

The 3 types of character

Before discussing how many characters you need, it’s important to identify the different types of character which are available:

  1. The primary, or main, characters drive the story. It is their motivations and goals which move the plot onwards and their presence which dictates the reader’s experience of the story.
  2. Secondary characters vary in complexity but weave in and out of the story as they encounter the main characters. They may be interesting, deeply so, but the reader’s focus does not follow them.
  3. Tertiary characters are utilities. They populate the world and fill necessary roles: a main character who goes from office worker to superhero will initially require some co-workers.
The main characters cause the story to happen, the secondary characters influence how it happens, and the tertiary characters allow it to happen. Click To Tweet

Great writing is minimalist

The real answer to the question ‘how many characters should I use’ is ‘as few as necessary’. Note that this isn’t ‘as few as possible’; you don’t always need to simplify your story to cut down on the characters, but you do need to use the minimum number of characters necessary to serve your story.

If the deeds and presence of one character can be merged into another then that first character isn’t necessary.

Characters can sometimes feel vital when in fact they’re harming the story. This is often the case with comic relief characters who are there to add moments of levity. Confining humor to this character means there’s none for the rest, and it may be that the story would benefit more from dissolving this role into the other characters and making them better rounded.

Stories benefit from using the fewest characters necessary, but that’s not the same as the fewest characters possible. Click To Tweet

This is especially true of characters who are there to serve plot points. A character who is present just so their death can establish a villain’s credentials is likely to read as a one-dimensional tool (just ask Star Trek’s redshirts.)

Fewer, more emotionally complex characters are better than many simpler characters. It may be the case that a certain number of secondary and tertiary characters are needed to create a realistically populated world. With that understood, it’s possible that the necessary characters for your story will still number in the twenties and thirties.

Character uniqueness

Tertiary characters, and some secondary characters, are present out of utility. If a character appears once and is gone, uniqueness is not an issue, apart from adding character to a story.

Where uniqueness matters is for characters you want your readers to recognize on their second appearance. The maximum number of main and recurring secondary characters you can use in a story is the number the audience can understand as unique entities.

Names aren’t as useful as they should be. Think of someone describing the characters in a television show, where characters are identified by their appearance rather than by their written name. The ubiquitous fall back on ‘the one who ____’ shows us that characters are understood chiefly by their characteristics and actions and this is no different in novels.

Your readers will find no difficulty telling the difference between James the flame-haired astronaut, Jamie the overweight chef and Jaime the bearded ranch hand and yet will find themselves unable to remember which well-dressed banker (Wilhelm, Maurice or Clethburne) is having the affair.

You cannot establish that characters exist simply by giving them a name and saying they’re present. Each character must have enough unique characteristics to fix themselves in the reader’s mind.

As ever, one of the best examples of writing craft can be found in a children’s book: the cast of A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh series. This is a series of children’s books which regularly employs a cast of nine main characters. The reason that such a junior readership can keep up with such a large cast is that they are unique from each other in almost every way:

Name Appearance Role Defining Emotion
Christopher Robin Human boy Reader Substitute
Winnie-the-Pooh Yellow bear Leader Foolishness
Piglet Pink pig Sidekick Fear
Owl Owl Mentor Intellect
Eeyore Blue donkey Victim Sadness
Kanga Large kangaroo Mother Caring
Roo Small Kangaroo Child Happiness
Rabbit Old Rabbit Curmudgeon Irritability
Tigger Tiger Instigator Enthusiasm


While Winnie-the-Pooh obviously deals with simplistic characters, the basic truth is the same in all fiction: establish a character as having a unique title, appearance, social role and emotional outlook and the audience will accept and remember their existence. The roster of suspects in one of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books can be easily broken down into the same sort of table.

Give readers an easy ‘handle’ on secondary characters: attitude, description, role in the group. Whatever’s most memorable.Click To Tweet

The maximum number of characters you can use is therefore quite large, however there is one governing factor which limits their use which brings me on to my next point.

Dialogue between characters

It is difficult for a reader to follow dialogue which takes place between more than three characters. More might be accounted for if characters have strictly defined personalities; a conversation between the entire Winnie-the-Pooh cast could be understood almost entirely through the mood of each statement, but with complex characters, three is generally the maximum.

It’s okay to have more than three characters in one place, but how many can there be before conversations limited to three of them appear strange? Stretching a conversation to account for four or five characters either elongates the discussion past an entertaining length or limits each character to short, unrealistic comments.

There are ways around this kind of limitation; Miss Marple stories are based around the idea of her encountering suspects individually or in small groups, but some genres offer less wiggle room.

It seems a shame to have the possible use of so many characters and yet be limited to three by restrictions of the medium. Happily the limitations of written dialogue can be subverted.


You can increase your character allowance by setting up clearly defined locations. In Stephen King’s The Stand the writer sets up two camps of characters, one in Las Vegas and one in Boulder. Both groups contain enough characters, and stand out personalities, to fill a novel but since the reader can clearly delineate each group using their locations, there is no confusion.

Break your characters into groups to provide clear context for who’s who. Later, the groups can mix and match.Click To Tweet

Using this kind of device allows your reader to ‘turn off’ the parts of their memory that aren’t required. They won’t forget about the ‘other’ group or groups you’ve established but they’ll feel less of the ‘who did what, again?’ stress.

This device can also be applied to time periods, social groups or even the perspective from which the passage is written.

The definitive example

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series has an expansive character list but, like Winnie-the-Pooh, begins structured around a central cast of nine.

The Fellowship of the Ring is made up of characters who differ vastly in title, appearance, social role, emotional outlook and even species. Group discussions are usually addressed through description, with topics summarized in third person. The group is together long enough to establish a common purpose and then Tolkien splits them up.

The characters are split into groups of two, two and three and travel to different locations, allowing for the use of natural dialogue in encounters with secondary characters. Even when the characters, Merry and Pippin, meet with an army of sentient trees, they communicate with the group through a single spokesman, keeping the dialogue to three characters.

This is the ideal treatment of multiple main characters. Each character is unique enough to be memorable, and if the reader has trouble there are cues in their unique demeanor, appearance and location.

Characters are the most important part of your story and you’ll be rewarded for every second you spend getting them right. As is so often the case, you should sit down and write out the details: identify what makes each character unique and important then compare their attributes and experiences. Knowing why each character is necessary to the story will make everything from plotting to writing dialogue easier and will help you decide how many characters are necessary.

Check out our article on 5 Things You Need To Know About Character Development for advice on fleshing out your characters and developing the type of memorable characters readers love, or refer to our 6 Insanely Good Dialogue Tips to learn why your dialogue is the first thing a literary agent looks at.


19 thoughts on “How Many Characters Should A Novel Have?”

  1. Robert,
    I’m going to beg to differ with you on the “great writing is minimalist” statement. While I think you are on target with statements like “as few as necessary” [is the number of characters one should use], the idea that “great writing is minimalist” is (in my opinion) strongly genre-prejudice. There are genres where readers aren’t looking for minimalist writing or storytelling (and, ultimately, it’s the readers who determine what “great writing” is), such as epic fantasy (you do use Tolkien as an example, so kudos for that), particularly when you get to the Jordan/Martin/Goodkind/Sanderson end of the epic fantasy pool. Given the nature of their writing, I wonder sometimes if if they actually introduce characters just up the number of characters.

    Having said all that, thanks for the interesting post.

  2. Hi Fritz,
    Thanks very much for the kind words. You’re right that in the end it’s down to the reader what constitutes great writing and one of the things that makes storytelling such a complex art form is that for every rule there’s always the addendum ‘unless it works’.

    In regards to minimalism I think that for any genre the ideal is to refine your writing as far as possible while still staying true to your story. As you say: in an epic that’s still going to involve a lot of writing and a lot of exploratory world building, but there is such a thing as a fat elephant. Certain writers employ a sort of lingering, indulgent style in both their writing and storytelling which works wonderfully, especially when the focus is on world building, but minimalism remains important.

    For example Terry Pratchett writes his Discworld series in a seemingly indulgent style, a lot of the fun is exploring the world and meeting characters, but it’s still tightly written within those parameters. The same can’t be said for his most recent book ‘Raising Steam’ where the verbose speeches go on just a little too long, the exposition is just a little too extensive and we’re given four or more scenes to establish a character where formerly he’d have managed the same effect with one. Hopefully that’s a side effect of the unfortunate but necessary move from typing to dictating but I think a comparison with one of the books from the series heyday (such as ‘Carpe Jugulum’) provides a really fantastic example of how minimalist writing still benefits a style where part of the charm is revelling in the superfluous.

    Thanks so much for commenting. It’s great to get that kind of reaction to an article and I could honestly discuss writing all day.
    – Rob

  3. I really appreciate your thoughts on this topic.
    I have a friend who is writing a second in a series of police mysteries. Her first book had over 100 characters, not to mention named places. Half were in the first 20% of the book, but she still added another in the last chapter. I told her it was far too many characters, but she disagreed because she was able to keep them all clear in her head. But the fact is, she did mix them up. On top of that she had nicknames, added first names further into the book, and called them sometimes by the first name and sometimes the last or by the nickname. And these characters were at best secondary characters. Far too many of the victims and suspects looked like each other and were inter-related either by blood or by their jobs. It was very hard to read what should have been fun reading. I volunteered to do initial editing of the second book for her, unpaid, but now I’m worried since I think she went so far off the rails in her first of the series. I agree that 20 or fewer is quite a manageable number of characters, most of them being unnamed tertiary characters. Thanks for the clearly written advice to go minimalistic.

    1. Hi el Tea,

      Thanks for the kind words.

      Wow, 100 characters! Obviously there are few absolutes in art, but that certainly sounds like way too many to expect a reader to remember. There are a lot of devices for affording yourself more characters – George R.R. Martin has done a lot in his Song of Ice and Fire series with switching protagonists, so that out of a huge number of characters there’s generally a smaller ‘cast’ surrounding each narrator – but even then it’s best to stick to more manageable numbers.

      I actually think TV is a little to blame for this issue. In visual media we see characters in front of us, so we don’t need to ‘remember’ so much as ‘recognise’. That means a lot of popular narratives have a wider character base than most writing can comfortably support. Anyone who’s tried to write a section of dialogue where four or more people are actively involved in the conversation will know that while you can just show that happening on film, it’s much, much harder to write.

      In terms of your friend’s narrative, I’d suggest advising them to try it with a few beta readers and see if they can keep things straight. It’s the number one trap for the author that we can’t see our own biases, and that things which are crystal clear to us may trip up others. Obviously the sooner this is addressed the better, as it sounds like an issue which is going to have a knock-on effect. I hope that’s been helpful.


  4. Dear Mr.Wood,

    I’m a fourteen year old boy, and I’ve done lots of poetry, improvising and such. Thanks a lot for the article, it helped me further confirm what I felt my characters should be, as I am currently writing a fantasy story. Most books are told through the eyes of one character, so I would be grateful if you could give me some advice on point of view, each through the eyes and thoughts of several characters. An example of this would Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series, where he alternates between characters every chapter, which basically gives separate stage time to each character, keeping the story fresh for the reader. Are there any good tips on how to write a good story to this effect, without confusion? Thanks for your time.

    1. Hi Miles,

      Great to hear from you! That’s a really good question, and one with quite a few answers. Multiple characters can be written in first person, third person, or a mix of the two, but first person is trickiest. That’s because there’s less chance for you as the writer to remind the reader who they’re following, so it’s easier for things to become confusing.

      In either situation, though, the key is to add some unique and easily identifiable features to each character’s experience. This could be the fact that they’re in an unusual place, with a noteworthy companion, or that they talk/behave/think in a unique way. These unusual features will act as signposts for the reader. If, for example, a character is travelling with a companion of a particular species (say, a goblin) then that detail acts as an immediate reference – as soon as the goblin comes up, the reader is in no doubt as to where they are.

      This can be done very subtly – the tone of voice and vocabulary of the character can be a really effective indicator. Readers notice a lot of things subconsciously, and if one character is quite formal while another is jokey then they’re unlikely to mix them up.

      Finally, you could develop a pattern for the reader to learn. If you chapters went ‘Character 1, Character 2, Character 3, Character 1, Character 2…’ then they’d know who to expect whenever a new chapter began.

      If you’re looking for examples, I’d suggest Jonathan Stroud’s ‘Bartimaeus Trilogy’. He uses point of view and tone to switch between multiple characters in a really effective, fantasy-orientated way.

      I’ve included a couple of articles below that deal with point of view, so hopefully they’ll provide some more useful information. The article on third person POV in particular deals with this same subject:


      I hope that’s the kind of thing you were after and that my advice has been useful. Good luck with your story!


      1. Mr Wood,

        I really appreciate the information packed answer, and the links to the other articles. Before i wrote this I checked out the Bartimaeus trilogy stories, and the first person/ third person alternating is interesting. However, I notice it all comes down to how you build your characters, so the reader still looks forward to and enjoys each characters POV. I’ll definitely use your awesome advice. Thanks a ton again.

  5. Hi Robert Woods,

    My name is Jay, I am 27 years (young) lol and I am currently writing the start of my first book (novel), as to which it is seeming to be more of a series. A series is more what I want to do, so for now I am letting it play out to minimize the stress of writing and all that goes with it. I am currently in the works of my character list, their details, and how they fit into the story. I have a current 15 characters which 13 of them would be most likely to play main roles within the story and 2 will be more introduction, then dying off quickly. I wanted to say that this entire article and all of its comments and feedback have been of much help in directing me furthermore. Any other info is greatly appreciated Robert Wood, if you may shoot me a few pointers and such.

    I have many ideas, started stories, and such jotted down as I do not want to loose the thought and can come back to them later when my mindset is focused within the right story. I never force myself to write or work on a story when im not feeling the story inparticular.

    I have already wrote, and completed a small 1st book to a childrens book series ive been working on, its unpublished as to I have found it a bit harder to figure out where to start. Idk wether to self publish or go through a publisher, and im unsure of who and where to go to. I have many ideas and works in progress because all my mind does is, it keeps on flowing continuously, even when im dreaming, its a story. So Robert Wood anything would be appreciated in helping me get in the right direction.

    Thank you and have a great day,

    Jay 🙂

    1. Hi Jay,

      Thanks for commenting – I’m really glad the article and comments have been so useful. As regards your projects, I’d suggest the articles below as somewhere to start thinking about how to take control of the creative urge and ensure projects get finished:


      Other than that, I’d be happy to provide a consultation where we can examine and address your needs as an author. If you contact me on [email protected] I’d be happy to discuss the type of service that would work for you.


  6. Hi Robert.

    My name’s Rose and I am currently a third of the way through the first draft of my fantasy novel. I feel confident in structure and this article assured me I was going in the right direction as far as character range goes, so thank you for posting this!

    I am looking for advice because so far my story is broken up into what I think are readable sized chunks which have a clear narrative and flow, but my protagonist is taking over. I know the plot revolves heavily around the main protagonist but I have other characters who play a pivotal role, who’s stories don’t take so much time to write, but also need to be concluded by time they meet the protagonist at the peak of the story. Could you offer me any guidance about breaking up the story to incorporate those characters? At the moment all the chapters follow the main protagonist, with small sections of a few paragraphs, maybe a page or two, in between chapters. Do you think this style would befit a fantasy novel?

    Thanks for all the great advice,

    1. Hi Rose,

      The method you suggest would work well, including ‘intermission’ chapters to give the other characters some dedicated space. The main things to consider when doing this is the perspective you’re writing from (especially how to switch from 1st to 3rd person if you’re leaving your narrator behind) and how early you want to introduce the idea of intermission chapters, so your reader learns to expect them.

      My advice would be to go bold – introduce early and break the perspective on the first line (if that’s what you need to do). It’ll be a little jarring, but only the first time, and the reader needs to learn the rules somehow. You could also consider throwing some more obstacles at the secondary characters to help adjust the pace of their narratives.

      Secondary stories allow you to manipulate time, cutting away from the primary story whenever you like, because you have somewhere to go. It may be that instead of regular intermissions, your story benefits from cutting to the secondary characters as the protagonist is in trouble, building some suspense through what happens when. Not only does this benefit the story, but it’s a satisfying way to turn a potential burden into a tool.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.