View Full Version : How many characters are too many?

09-12-2008, 01:59 PM
I am editing my book now, which is a women's fiction of around 83.000 words (before edits). I realize that I have characters that show up in only one scene, then they disappear forever. There are names that I mention just once, in order to create some state of mind for my MC, but are not important for anything else. As I revise now, I realize that I have to keep an account of all these people (so that I don't repeat names or whatnot) and it is difficult. I wonder it it would be too much for the reader also.

There are 24 characters mentioned by name in my book. They are Romanian names (short ones, though, some with easy English equivalents). I am not one to remember names easily - Russian literature has been such a pain for me for that reason. I don't want to confuse or aggravate the reader. What do you think?

Thank you in advance. This place has already been for me an invaluable source of information.

09-12-2008, 02:07 PM
It isn't necessary to mention someone's name unless that character is important to the story, his name requires to be remembered, or he is going to re-appear or be referred to later.

I presume you are only naming your important characters. If you are finding it difficult to keep track of the names, the reader may do so, too. But you are having difficulty because you have to come up with different names -that's all.

It all boils down to context. There's plenty of stories with names of characters who are forgotten as the story goes on. The reader will remember the main ones -no?

09-12-2008, 02:32 PM
A lot of the story is happening in my MC's mind. It's a journal-type novel. So many times she meets a character, or hears about another character's story making her think about her own situation, helping her push her story farther. I mean some characters that come up are just triggers for the MC's story advancement.

I also feel compelled in many cases to put their names down, because that is how she would refer to them in her journal - by name.

And you are right, my difficulty comes mostly from the fact that I don't want to give the same name to different characters (I've done that a few times - major editing confusion ensued). I hope a reader could filter out and remember only the few important names. And I hope it is OK to let the reader do this filtering.

09-12-2008, 02:34 PM
If it works, use it. Ask your betas to comment on that point or ask them afterwards if you don't want to bring their attention to it too strongly.

09-12-2008, 03:40 PM
I keep a list of all characters names. Every single one that I have named in my WIP.
When I introduce a single one that was not in the outline (usually minor), it gets his place there, with a few words describing who is.

I believe that if a character is really minor and will diappear pretty soon without coming back, it would be better to not name it at all, but sometimes the dialogue or some exposition requires it. I dont think it causes harm because the reader will forget it as easily as it came.

09-12-2008, 03:47 PM
I think it does entirely depend on context. However, one thing that was once suggested to me, and that I find quite useful, is the concept of 'combining' minor characters.

So if character A appears once and then disappears from the novel, and then character B appears later on for some other reason, is it possible to merge both characters into character C? Cuts down on your character count and also provides some consistency for your reader.

Don't know if this will work in your novel, but might be worth considering.


09-12-2008, 04:48 PM
I had a list of characters which was completely messed up when I started the editing. I kept changing names. I don't know why. Now I revised the list too. That's how I now know for a fact how many characters live in this book, and I am worried.

I have been also, contemplating the idea of merging some of the characters, and that should work our flawlessly, I would think. But on the other hand, I think that literature should emulate life, and in real life we do meet these interesting and meteoric people who have a strong impact on us, because they make us rethink our view of the world or something like that. But then, I wouldn't expect literature to be as complicated and difficult as life. Nobody would want to read anything. At least I wouldn't.

Revisions are indeed such a nightmare. How can one stop overthinking the whole thing?

09-12-2008, 04:51 PM
Are those characters all main characters? How many are secondary and how many minor? And are those 24 characters in the story all at once? Do they have a purpose when they appear and is there clarity of who they are and why they're there?

I have about 20-30 characters in my novel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pacific_Between), but only about 12 major/secondary characters.

Alpha Echo
09-12-2008, 04:58 PM
I keep a list of characters names also, and I even give all of them a little bio. I never know if the character will pop up again, and I find it helps to know about ALL of your characters, not just the main ones.

I think it becomes too many if later on throughout the book, the reader says, "Wait a minute, what happened to that girl...?" Or the reader starts to get confused about who is who.

It sounds to me that you're fine, but the best way to find out is to beta.

09-12-2008, 05:28 PM
I would say that only 8 or 9 of the characters are main ones, the rest contributing just with a story or with one event in my MC's life. No, they don't come up all at once. Some of them are on different time lines. To me they do have a purpose but I am not sure about the clarity issue. I am going to look for that.

I guess you are all right and this is a thing the beta readers could tell me about. I was just planning to edit this thing as much as possible before I give it to anybody for reading. I don't want to waste people's time. (Also, I am very scared of the criticism, so I want to build some confidence first.)

09-12-2008, 05:57 PM
I would say that only 8 or 9 of the characters are main ones, the rest contributing just with a story or with one event in my MC's life.

8 or 9 is a lot of main characters (though it's possible that you and I define "main character" differently--but even there, 8 or 9 people whose names, stories and personalities the reader has to remember are a lot). I can't actually think of a good modern novel with one main character and that many other characters to keep track of. (19th-century Russian novels are another story, but I assume you're not trying to write a 19th-century Russian-style novel!).

But it is possible to make the group essentially be the main character. There's a book called "Writing the Breakout Novel" (which I recommend) that briefly discusses some books in which the main character is actually a group--like, the whole group goes through the story's big experience together, and comes out changed. Some random examples: The Breakfast Club, Cheaper by the Dozen (memoir, not novel, but the same basic rules apply), and The Big Chill. I'm just mentioning this because it's an approach that makes having so many characters workable--but it doesn't sound like this approach would work for the story you're trying to tell here.

I would second the vote of the poster who suggested combining characters. Not just minor characters who only appear once, though--you can combine major characters too, if you've got too many of them. And of course, you can cut some of them out.

09-12-2008, 06:37 PM
Remembering the names, stories and personalities of main characters in a story is not a problem simply because of their being one of 9 or 12 or however many.

It's only a problem when the story is told in such a way it becomes difficult to remember what one is supposed to remember. Or if one is not reminded appropriately at any given time of what one should be remembering.

And I'm not familiar with the poster's story or how it is told.

09-13-2008, 05:00 PM
my opinion, fwiw, is that if you use the same character name twice in different contexts, the reader is entitled to believe the character is someone they have to try to remember. Using it once and not repeating it is fine, so far as I am concerned. The little place in memory where the reader keeps such information won't be tickled again by the recognition of the old name, and it will therefore not begin asking "why did he show up again?"

In my writing, I have frequently used a relative or friend's name to tag a tangential character. When I described the operations of an obscure church, most of the people were cousins, for example. Thus, I remember easily the names used.

09-13-2008, 07:56 PM
I think I will take the advice and merge some of the characters. I have also been thinking that remembering everybody's name is actually not important for this book, because it is not a heavy plotted story. But anyway, I don't want anything to be confusing.
Thank you all for sharing your insights. I hope soon I'll feel confident enough to offer my help to other people on this forum.