How Many Characters Should Your Story Have?

Quick: what is the most excitable organ in the body?

That’s right – it’s the imagination.

Sometimes, when you’re getting all hot and bothered creative, you get too eager (don’t worry, it happens to all of us).

You get this urge to create, and create, and create. Before you know it, you have a glut of characters:

  • 4 protagonists, with 4 distinct groups of companions
  • 6 love interests
  • 12 dwarves
  • And a guy named Frank because you couldn’t think of a better name, so you just used this as a place holder until a better name comes along…

Is that too many names? How many characters SHOULD your short story/novel/Harry Potter fan fiction have?

What is the Right Amount of Characters for Your Story?

Three. That’s the magic number. The best stories ever written had only 3 characters, no more – no less.

No, I’m just messing with you. There are no rules in writing, only very, very useful starting points.

That said, if you’re a first time writer, and you just want a quick answer, starting with three characters is a great way to outline your story – you’ve got room for a protagonist, an antagonist, and a wrench character.

K.M. Weiland refers to this as a “relationship character.” I don’t necessarily agree with her statement on this character’s role in the story, but her advice still proves useful.

To answer this question correctly, we will start by eliminating the WRONG answer…

How Many is Too Many Characters?

Here’s a good test: Does your first paragraph have more than 4 names? Does your first chapter (or first 2-3 scenes) have more than 10 names?

You probably have too many characters.

Exception: if you’re using those names as a device. For example:


It was my first day at my new school. The teacher, Mrs. Kramer stood at the front of the class, getting ready to call attendance. I was sweating already, aching for this moment to be over. I already knew how everyone would react when she got to mine:

“Louis?”

“Here.”

“Zelda?”

“Here.”

“Damon?”

“Here.”

“Gleep-glop-bagoo-lop….?”

“Here,” I said, trying to figure out how I could turn invisible, while also showing her that I was, indeed, here. both turn invisible while also raising my hand to show her that I was indeed here.


What do you do if you have too many characters?

Excellent question. You have two choices:

  1. Kill them dead.

or

  1. Make your characters eat each other alive.

The first option is the hardest. You’ve heard the expression “Kill your darlings,” right? That’s what I’m asking you to do here.

As writers, all we care about is getting our readers to engage with the story, so we can lead them on a roller coaster of emotions, and lay them low with a powerful conclusion (ideally, one that haunts them for days).

So, when you find yourself with too many characters, you must ask yourself the tough questions:

  • Does this character reveal anything about my protagonist/antagonist?
  • Is this character interesting? Does this character build the world?
  • Will this character help me advance/regress the arc of my protagonist/antagonist, either by impeding or aiding them?

If this answer is NO to all of these questions well… it might be time to send old Yeller to the big farm in the sky.

Many-Characters-Puppy-dog-eyes.jpg
I’m just kidding, little guy. I’d never send you anywhere.

But what if you answered ‘YES’ to one of those questions?

Then I have some GOOD NEWS for you:

You don’t have to kill that character. Instead, you get to decide if they get to eat – or have to be eaten by your other characters.

And by this I mean you’re going to have to blend your characters together.

Think of it like the Power Rangers. Individually, they suck, right? I mean, they’re just kids who can do flips and punch bad guys in the face.

But when the bad guy is a giant alien blob from outer space? They combine together into this super robot who can do BIGGER flips and punch BIGGER bad guys in the face.

In this, the worst analogy ever written, your characters are the power rangers, and the Big Bad Dude is YOUR READER’S ATTENTION SPAN. You gotta blend those less-than-useful characters together to keep your short story/novel/’Dramione‘ romance novelette in the fight.

Too Long, Didn’t Read:

There is such a thing as too many characters. Your main goal as writer is to get your reader’s attention.

If your readers can’t remember who’s who in your story, you’re done. To defeat the giant alien blob, you can either kill your useless characters, or merge them.

For a fast start, three is the perfect number: Protagonist. Antagonist. Wrench/Relationship character. Read this story for a quick example.


 

Leave a comment and Subscribe: Alright, so we’ve all heard the story of the author who was puttering along on their book, when they realized that one of their side characters was waaay more interesting than their protagonist – so they rewrote the whole thing from the side character’s point of view.

I want to know about your experiences with this kind of thing. Post in the comments below and tell me how you had to murder/devour/re-assess your characters.

Don’t forget to hit that subscribe button.

23 thoughts on “How Many Characters Should Your Story Have?

  1. Not sure I can agree with this 3 characters, entirely. Maybe 3 major players, but most stories need some support characters to work – unless it’s something like “No Exit” in a completely closed environment, if you go out of the house at all, there will be more than 3. I do agree that limiting the number is a good idea, especially if you are dialogue heavy. Too many people speaking can get very confusing and big group scenes can leave both author and reader panting for breath. Sometimes, those scenes are necessary, but I do my best to limit them.
    I can’t even say on average, how many characters I have per story. I do have a few named Frank – one of them is a main character. I like the name Frank, it’s comforting and familiar. I do, however, tend to name a lot of minor characters Patrick and Pati. Not sure why. Maybe, again, because it’s a comfortable name.
    The only time I can see myself adopting this idea would be in a very short story. In a novel, I really can’t see it working for me. I do agree that keeping the cast list small is a good idea.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, thank you for the comment!

      I should probably clarify this somewhere in the post – 3 is NOT the maximum number of characters you want to have. 3 is merely a starting point, in my mind, for new writers.

      The point is to show people that you shouldn’t be making characters for the sake of having a ‘full cast of interesting people.’

      Instead, you should be focusing on a very small number (maybe 3, maybe 2, maybe 8 for your epic Game of Thrones fan fiction), and figuring out how those characters are RELATED.

      3 is, I’ve found, a really strong number to start with. You’ve got the perfect setup with Protag, Antag, and Wrench character. You can always scale it up, or maybe you kill off one Antag only to introduce a new one, etc.

      I hope I cleared this up some – now I gotta go back and try to fix it in the post. Thank you so much for the comment Dellani!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great advice! This is typically the first problem I gave and the one that causes me to give up eventually. I end up creating too many characters and interlinked backgrounds that I lose touch with the big picture. I will definitely keep your suggestions in mind from next time!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, writing can be really hard. There are literally an infinite number of choices you can make with writing (unless you’re working with a word limit, but let’s ignore the math for a second).

      One thing I used to get hung up on was perfection. I was always worried about, “What if, in a hundred years, people want to come back and read my stuff, and it’s terrible?”

      Don’t worry if you lose sight of the bigger picture! Your first draft is NEVER your last draft. Sometimes it’s helpful to just pick a direction and go. Remember, you can ALWAYS backtrack when the urge arises.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve started a new story, and I’d love it if you can check it out and give me your comments. I haven’t started outlining the story yet and I’m just taking it as it goes. 🙂

        Like

  3. Great advice that also made me laugh: thanks for posting! =]

    In my experience, I’ve had more of a problem with two few characters (family members and close friends of the protagonist/antagonist are absent without explanation), and have had to flesh things out on the second pass. I have ended up with two many people in a particular scene, where handling all the different voices and body language becomes more trouble than it’s worth. When this happens, I try to think of creative ways to split people up.

    Might have to try the eating each other thing, sometime.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “I have ended up with two many people in a particular scene, where handling all the different voices and body language becomes more trouble than it’s worth. When this happens, I try to think of creative ways to split people up.” – YES. I hate when this happens. Usually that’s a big sign for me that I’ve got way too many characters. One of the best ways to fix this – without killing or eating anyone – is to split them up into groups, or factions.

      For example: “When it dropped, the aunts gasped collectively, one of my uncles snorted, the kids started screaming, and my face turned cherry red.”

      If you’ve ever read the Hobbit, Tolkien actually does a really good job of this, even when he has fourteen characters to handle all at the same time.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have read the Hobbit: I think it’s my favorite Tolkien writing, actually. He does handle his 14+ characters very well – I can’t imagine trying to deal with that many!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. “Name Soup” is the perfect way to describe this. I’ve been reading a bunch of short stories by young writers lately. They usually get up to about 7 names in the first few paragraphs, with no description whatsoever. So, in my mind, everyone is the same shade of chicken-soup yellow.

      Wonder what it is about first-time writers that they feel the need to dump so many names all at once…

      Like

    2. I decidedly agree with this! I read a book for a contest, which was supposed to be a Regency romance. The author had a group of men speaking, all brothers or cousins or something, and their names all began with R. I couldn’t keep them straight. I think there were 5 in the room, all talking. (that one didn’t win) 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This just happened to me in a Star Wars novel I’m listening to – we’re introduced to a whole crew of I think six people, all on one page. To make it worse, the narrator assumes you have a deep familiarity with Star Wars aliens (I don’t), so he says “This one was a Blarbagoo, and Captain Klabba was a Kibobbabob alien, and -”

        Needless to say, I was as lost as a duck in the desert.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That would confuse the dickens out of me. It also sets the book apart from a vast majority of readers who don’t know what a Blarbagoo is. It’s like the sound a toad makes when he farts on wet pavement.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Hahaha, exactly. I was ready to switch books, but I had an inkling that the author was trying to do something ‘clever’ (as the rest of the book up to that point was pretty good).

        I’m glad I waited it out, because while it wasn’t the best writing, he clearly had a purpose – and he killed all but one of them in one fell swoop. It was actually a cool moment that was marred slightly by the too-many-names problem.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I’m a happy ending kind of girl. I might kill off a few of my characters, but usually, I don’t opt for the Last Man Standing thing. Even in a battle where they are highly outnumbered, I don’t do a mass slaughter. Don’t want to come up with a bunch of new characters for the next book in the series. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that’s a lesson I learned from reading some of the better suspense writers out there. Not everyone needs a name, and if you waste time naming them, you’re going to slow down your story.

      Thanks for the comment Mike!

      Like

    2. Agreed. But have you ever had that guy, you thought he was a walk-on, come back and take over? Then he needs a name – fast! That has happened to me a few times. A character of mine has appeared in no less than 11 of my books. I thought he was just a small part in one book, but I was wrong! He doesn’t want his own, he just likes appearing in others. Meetings with Cullen are sort of a rite of passage. If the newbies survive the meeting, then all is well.

      Liked by 1 person

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