Image: Matthew Loffhagen
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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:
|Christopher Robin||Human boy||Reader Substitute|
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.
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.
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.