View Full Version : How many characters can you introduce in a chapter?

Saint Fool
12-12-2008, 04:03 AM
Over on SYW, one of my main crits (especially in SF/F) is that writers throw too many characters and names at the reader at once.

Well, in my first chapter, I introduce four, count 'em, four characters. There is also a dead body but since it's used as a prop, I figure it doesn't count. But now my crits are coming back to haunt me. Is four too many?

A is my protagonist, B&C are her children. D is her ex-husband. B, C, and D will be the source of plot twists and obstacles to A throughout the book.

The chapter is 1900 words long. (Although I'm expecting it to be a couple of hundred words longer before it's ready to be seen in public.)

A, B, and C discover the dead body. Talk and activity ensues revealing much about A and some about B&C. D makes his appearance at around the 1300 mark, makes a suggestion that reveals something about him, and swears the others to silence. End of chapter.

It is a modern setting with no odd names or occupations. There are no NPCs. NPCs? You know, the nosy neighbor who has a name but doesn't contribute to the action and will never be seen again. (Rest in peace, Mr. Mesko.) Or the bartender who gets a name but only takes the drink order, serves the drinks and contributes nothing to the plot.

So ... how many characters can be introduced in a chapter. Or does it depend more on how they interact with each other? How many have you introduced at one time? And did you end up introducing one or two of them someplace else?

12-12-2008, 04:12 AM
I'm quite certain Tolkien introduced 14 in the first chapter of The Hobbit. Although it might have been 2 in chapter one, and 12 more in chapter two. I don't remember.

12-12-2008, 04:13 AM
This may sound simplistic, but introduce as many characters as necessary for the story. Just like the length of chapters. Whatever is necessary and keeps the reader involved.


Clair Dickson
12-12-2008, 04:18 AM
I think particularly with the first chapter (or two) if you're going to introduce a bunch of names and characters, they had better be worth remembering. I start taking names in the first chapter and figure I'd better get to know these folks... I expect them to have big roles all the way through. Some bigger than others.

12-12-2008, 12:22 PM
A is my protagonist, B&C are her children. D is her ex-husband. B, C, and D will be the source of plot twists and obstacles to A throughout the book.
Their being related makes me think this isn't a problem. It's not as if you're introducing a handful of totally different oddly named characters from totally different backgrounds, each of whom carries enough personal quirks and history baggage to crush a pack mule flat.


12-12-2008, 02:45 PM
You can introduce however many characters you want, as long as you can tell a compelling story and keep it clear to your readers. Or in negative terms, never bog down the story or confuse your readers.

12-12-2008, 02:46 PM
Four sounds like a good number. Two can get to "boring, waiting on something to happen" pretty quick. Three can have interplay and introduce the story more. If the fourth only has a short bit in the chapter it can really open it up to want to read more to see what the fourth character does.

12-12-2008, 02:47 PM
My first chapter is only populated by two people. Definitely not boring because they're having sex.

Later on, I introduced a whole pack of folks and I already know a few will be excised from the second draft.

Linda Adams
12-12-2008, 03:43 PM
Very likely you're introducing too many characters to the reader all at once. You, as the writer, have the advantage of having worked with the story and know who everyone is; reader is coming into it cold.

Since I've been criticized in the past for having too many named characters (eleven in one chapter), I try for about three characters in the first chapter. Why that number? Because I was doing the same as you, trying to identify how many I should have and found a reference in the book The Writer's Guide to Fiction that said three. But I also tend to run in the ten-page chapter range, so more than three probably would be a lot for that length.

So start with taking your length into consideration. If it's ten or under, four may be too many. If it's more than that, think about how you introduce them.

Make sure also that your opening chapter is appropriate for introducing characters. If the story jumps right into a huge fight scene, it's going to be tough to introduce any characters in the middle of it. It'll be very hard for the reader to remember.

Avoid things like mentioning names just to get them on the page. I saw one guy who wanted to get all the names of his characters on the page in the first chapter, so he had other characters discuss those characters.

Or does it depend more on how they interact with each other? How many have you introduced at one time? And did you end up introducing one or two of them someplace else?

What I do: Main character comes first and I establish the story. Things are starting to happens as a secondary character enters the scene and continues contributing to establishing the story. Then third character shows up to provide an additional complication. My focus, in each case, is on solidly establishing each character in his own right and getting the reader familiar with them while using it to keep the story moving.

12-12-2008, 06:33 PM
When a reader starts a novel, they don't have much to ground them in the world and story. They know the protag since the name will be on the back cover (most likely), but not much more than that. So anyone introduced in chapter one has the potential to be important, otherwise why introduce them first? So readers tend to pay attention and try to figure out who they need to remember and focus on.

If you throw too many names at them, they lose track. If it's clear that some names are unimportant, then readers know they don't have to remember them. But if equal importance (and page time) is given to all characters, then readers don't know who to remember.

The trick is to make it clear who readers should remember and who is unimportant.

I try to do this by looking at my non-protag characters and seeing how they fit into my protag's world/life. If she thinks they're important, then the reader knows to remember them and why. If she doesn't focus on them, then readers know they don't have to remember them beyond the scene.

12-12-2008, 07:15 PM
Based on your description, I don't think your four introductory characters sound like too many, especially if they each play a big enough role in the chapter to become memorable quickly.

I just introduce whoever is needed in a particular chapter. I never keep track of how many. I can't say if I introduce too many or not, but nobody has ever complained to me about it. But I would make a point not to dump a whole boatload of characters onto somebody in one chapter, especially if they aren't all going to get a substantial amount of time with the reader.

That's just my longwinded way of saying it varies.

Saint Fool
12-12-2008, 09:19 PM
Ya know, I always thought of the twelve characters in The Hobbit as "the dwarves." being that I could never remember which name belonged to which dwarf. Had no trouble with the Disney seven, though. Go figure.

Thanks for the responses. I appear to be falling in line with Claire's rule, so I'll see where it takes me. The one thing that's certain is my betas will let me know ... good and hard.

12-13-2008, 09:37 PM
Derek's right in noting that their all being part of one family makes it easier. If the kids are going to be running in and out of the book, I think it works well to have their names quite different from their parent's names -- like, if the parents are Joe and Sally, the kids could be Tabitha and Jackson. Or, especially if they're small, Tabby and Jacky.