How many characters is too many?
April 4, 2020 at 3:53 pm #109885
How many characters is too many characters? My current project has a lot of characters—more than I generally write about all together. A majority of them are minor but do contribute to the plot. I was wondering if the sheer amount is perhaps too much? How many characters would you say are the average amount to include in fantasy?April 4, 2020 at 4:54 pm #109889Taylor Clogston@taylorclogston
That’s waaay too general a question. Fantasy is a huge collection of genres, and character count is vastly different for different purposes.
Like, the Stormlight books mention over 500 characters over the course of three (so far) books. Only like… five or six? Of those are main viewpoint characters, and for each one of those we have a handful of subplot characters, and then we have a bunch of characters who have viewpoints in just a few scenes, but it’s still a ton. Stormlight is grand and sweeping.
But then there’s the Earthsea books, which name like 125 characters over the course of five books and five short stories. And we only really have one or two viewpoint characters for each these. Earthsea is tight and focused.
In a mainstream fantasy book, you’ll see even fewer. You’ll probably have one or two viewpoints, one or two subplot characters if you’re lucky, and maaaybe a few dozen or fewer mentioned characters over a single book, including random waiters and cousins and teachers and whatever. Mainstreamy fantasy that crosses with romance or thriller and stuff like that tends to be… functional in regard to its cast.
The non-answer is it totally depends on your story. Do readers get confused or bored or feel like it’s too much effort to keep track of so many characters? Then it’s probably too many for your story. Otherwise, if you’re perfectly happy continuing to deal with that many, you’re probably fine as far as number goes.
"...the one with whom he so sought to talk has already interceded for him." -The Master and MargaritaApril 5, 2020 at 9:47 am #109904Isaiah@allertingthbs
@a_nna I don’t think that having many characters in your story is a bad thing, as long as you aren’t trying to divide the focus of the story into too many different directions. I’m going to use Avengers Endgame as an example.
I consider Iron Man, Captain America, and Thanos to be the focal characters of the Infinity saga. Just about every movie has one or more of these three influencing the story. In Endgame especially we have many characters in the story interacting with each other but the focus is still on the goals of our three focal characters. Stark is at the end of his line, looking for his “rest” and trying to protect what he has finally needed since his first movie: a family. Rogers is working to right the wrongs that Thanos has done, all the while ready to lay down his shield and find his own rest. Thanos is still seeking his misguided balance and universal harmony. Even he has the final goal of rest, as he said in Infinity War.
Yes, movies and books tend to follow different rules and guidelines pertaining to plot and character speed. Endgame IS the closing movie of a pretty long series that is comprised of individual stories and film sequels. Endgame still shows a good example of having a long list of characters who are parts of their own arcs while keeping only a few as the primary topic of the story.
"Only a Sith deals in absolutes"
-Quipmaster 2005April 5, 2020 at 12:48 pm #109910
@a_nna This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, as my WIP is centered around a crew of nine people. I have yet to figure this out application to my story, but I think it largely depends on how you pull it off. Like @taylorclogston pointed out there’s a difference between whether they are part of the main cast of POV-providers or just characters that are found by the main handful of characters as the story progresses. @allertingthbs mentioned Endgame, which does a great job pulling off a large cast, though to be fair it’s part of something that has been building up for over a decade. (Note: just like Toy Story 4, which by the way has a overwhelming amount of parallels to Endgame. It’s actually most amusing to think about. 😆 )
If the you’re looking for examples more along the lines of a big group of characters that follow through a story, (like a big family or support group) I was reminded through this conversation of an introduction I read to the book, Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card (not necessarily recommended for all ages of readers) in which he talks about five(six?) siblings in his book’s first draft bogging it down because there were so many of them. Instead of cutting them out, however, he instead went back and made them all unique and made them their own beings. The story turned from being muddled, to be clear, concise, and the reader isn’t distracted thinking about how many kids in this group there are and how it seems like overkill because they all are the same, copy and paste.
So my advice, if these many characters are more in the foreground, maybe even more in the background, walk through and identify why they are there, what they are contributing to the story, and if they all are unique or not, whether that be through characteristics, motives, mannerisms, personality etc.. A good test is if a reader can remember them, or not after reading it. (Note: more remember their roles + contribution, then necessarily their names, for example: “Oh, I remember that guy, he was the blacksmith that advised the mc in that one scene to go rob the bank” or whatever.)April 5, 2020 at 1:51 pm #109912
@taylorclogston Thank you! I was unsure because a few different people have told me (in passing) that I have too many characters, but I also know that, as you pointed out, some stories have many characters and some do not. It all depends on the plot proportions, writer’s preferences, audience, etc. I’m fine with keeping track of them all, so I suppose my only concern is to make sure that they don’t make my story seem too crowded.
April 5, 2020 at 1:56 pm #109914
- This reply was modified 1 year, 3 months ago by Anna Friend.
@allertingthbs Thank you! Your examples really help to put things into perspective!April 5, 2020 at 2:08 pm #109916
So my advice, if these many characters are more in the foreground, maybe even more in the background, walk through and identify why they are there, what they are contributing to the story, and if they all are unique or not, whether that be through characteristics, motives, mannerisms, personality etc.. A good test is if a reader can remember them, or not after reading it.
@evelyn Solid advice! Thank you so much 🙂 I try to give each character a motive, a quirk and a desire as if they believe the story is about them, even if they’re only in one scene, so that they don’t fall flat. I think oftentimes where I fall short is their personal voice, but that’s something that I can fix through more practice. Your Orson Scott Card example really helped, as well.April 6, 2020 at 9:03 am #109928April 20, 2020 at 8:22 am #110480
@a_nna Hey just wanted to pop in again. How’s it going?
My dad recently pointed out a couple books I had completely forgotten apply to this topic. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express. If you aren’t bothered by fictional murder stories and a mild language, then they would be worth studying for ideas.April 20, 2020 at 3:09 pm #110520
@evelyn It’s going well! I’ve been able to balance my characters more easily lately. They don’t feel quite so overwhelming as a single cast.
I’ve been planning to read Murder on the Orient Express, but I haven’t found the time yet. I will definitely look into both of those. Thank you!
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