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jillianburks
04-21-2009, 10:24 PM
How many main characters are too many?
I'm worried that my WIP may have too many. It's not confusing but I worry that readers my want to read less about four characters and more about one.
Thanks

Madison
04-21-2009, 10:33 PM
I think it's up to you -

I'm currently reading Small Island by Andrea Levy (Orange Prize winner), and she has four POV narrators. It's not confusing. In fact, it fleshes out the story in a *potentially* much deeper way than a single narrator could. The same scenes come up several times, each time told by someone else who gives a new perspective. Plus it's just more interesting, since right now the plot is slow - the different narrators spice things up.

But obviously working with four narrators takes talent (and work). Each voice has to have its own personality, sound and style. Four narrators with the same-sounding voice defeat the purpose.

Shinryu
04-21-2009, 10:47 PM
How many main characters are too many?
I'm worried that my WIP may have too many. It's not confusing but I worry that readers my want to read less about four characters and more about one.
Thanks

Four is a decent amount; it's not overwhelming for the reader, I think. Now, having 25 main characters... *looks at A Song of Ice And Fire series*

vrabinec
04-21-2009, 10:58 PM
I could easily live with 6 or 7 main POV characters, as long as, during the course of the novel, they are sharing some event or experience and their POV's show different aspects of it. I've seen this done in wartime epics very effectively. But the sotru ultimately should pare down to 3 or 4 who are the primary characters and are the ones the reader REALLY should care about. I could even see 15 or 20 POV characters in an epic.

Rushie
04-21-2009, 11:36 PM
I've got a book that gives a guideline based on length. Makes sense to me. Starts with one POV if it's really short, like 40,000 words, up to 5 or 6 if it's a really huge novel.

Raphee
04-22-2009, 09:08 AM
Read Orhan Pamuk's MY NAME IS RED.
It has many many First Person narrators. I tend to quote this book for a number of reasons. But the point is that he could have achieved a good story with a single narrator. He wrote a great book with the multiple POV's.

It is all in the execution.

lovesaphira
04-22-2009, 10:40 AM
Well i have 5. lol. People who are picky might say they are main supporting characters but i consider them all to be main characters, particularly in the other three books in the series :D

jodiodi
04-22-2009, 10:47 AM
Read Tolkien? There are main characters spread all over the story and the countryside.

I think, as a reader, I can handle as many 'characters' as the story deems important as long as they aren't all followed at the same time. Perhaps a chapter break or one of those in-chapter breaks to show what each character is doing at the same time. Then when they all come together, all the threads are woven into a seamless story.

Stephen King follows a multitude of characters in several of his books. The Stand and The Cell come to mind.

Grebbsy
04-22-2009, 11:58 AM
Think of it as juggling. One is easy. Two or three most people can do with practice, although you may drop a ball now and again even so. The more balls -- or characters -- that you add, the greater skill you will need, and the higher likelihood that you'll drop a ball; but if you can pull it off, you'll impress the audience that much more.

As with all similes, this one can only be pushed so far before it collapses (the most skilful and successful writers are by no means always the ones who juggle the most main characters).

Birol
04-22-2009, 12:32 PM
Moved from Novels to BWQ.

dpaterso
04-22-2009, 01:32 PM
As long as interesting stuff happens to each main character, I'd say run with as many as you feel you can handle.

-Derek

Linda Adams
04-22-2009, 02:55 PM
Here's what I learned from my last book, which had four main characters:

Make sure you have one primary main character; the rest can be secondary main characters. When I first did the last book, I gave equal weight to each one because they were all main characters. But it made impossible to write a coherent query or synopsis without using all those characters--and people said across the board that there were too many in such a short piece. So I ended up doing a revision so the arc of the main story specifically followed a primary character. The others were still main characters, but the primary main character anchored the entire story. When it came to writing the query and synopsis later on, it was a lot easier.

My WIP also has four main characters, but I came into this new one with one character who anchors the book.

Krisela
04-22-2009, 04:08 PM
Make sure you have one primary main character; the rest can be secondary main characters.

Seconding this. I think you can have several main characters, but it's important to have one central character. It's easier for the reader, and I've also found it easier to write. He (or she) might not necessarily be more crucial to the plot, but he's the link that leads you to the other characters.

For example, I remember reading Tamora Pierce's Circle of Magic series when I was younger. There were four main characters, and they were all well-developed and important to the plot of each book - but each of the four books was focused on a different character. If it hadn't been written like this, it would have been pretty hard to follow!

maestrowork
04-22-2009, 06:25 PM
As many as your story needs. As few as to not confuse your readers.

thecraftteens
04-22-2009, 07:57 PM
Here's what I learned from my last book, which had four main characters:

Make sure you have one primary main character; the rest can be secondary main characters. When I first did the last book, I gave equal weight to each one because they were all main characters. But it made impossible to write a coherent query or synopsis without using all those characters--and people said across the board that there were too many in such a short piece. So I ended up doing a revision so the arc of the main story specifically followed a primary character. The others were still main characters, but the primary main character anchored the entire story. When it came to writing the query and synopsis later on, it was a lot easier.

My WIP also has four main characters, but I came into this new one with one character who anchors the book.


I second this. Have one central character that carries the most weight; have the others be secondary main characters.

In my WIP, I have five main characters, but there is one that is heard from the most throughout the story. I also have difficulty juggling them all in the same scene, so I split them up to go off on their own mini-adventures so I can juggle them all.

dawinsor
04-22-2009, 09:46 PM
I've been thinking about this recently because I've read several epic fantasies where multiple POVs are common. One thing you might do is establish a hierarchy of POVs, so that if POV character #1 and #2 are together, we always see that scene from #1's POV, for instance. That orients the reader to who the primary character is.

However, I think the really important thing to remember is that readers want two things: they want to care about the characters and they want a story that's more unified and coherent than life. POV helps a writer with the first thing but needs to be handled carefully to achieve the second.

POV is more than a way to have eyes in different parts of the landscape. It's a way to encourage the reader to identify with the character, to see things as the character does and understand that character. This was driven home to me when I read Guy Gavriel Kay's The Last Light of the Sun, which adapts the history of Alfred the Great's battle against Viking invaders. Kay has tons of POVs, and I have to admit there were moments when I wished he'd not gone on for those three pages about that woman by the side of the road whom we never see again.

But there's this one scene that I thought was just brilliant. King Aeldred captures a group of Viking mercenaries, and we see this encounter mostly from the POV of one of the men in Aeldred's force, though we also get a glimpse into the head of the Viking leader. The king is incensed not only over the invasion, and the threat the Vikings will prove to another part of the kingdom if their ships get away, but also on a more personal level because the Vikings earlier caught six of Aeldred's men, a patrol led by his best friend. Rather than hold the captives for hostage, which is what everyone would expect, the Vikings killed them all in a scene we saw. And because we saw it, we know that the Viking mercenaries were appalled by the killings because they cost them money. Only the man who hired them wanted the hostages dead, so he killed Aeldred's friend and started the fight. That killer has already escaped.

Btw, the invaders are not people you'd want in your neighborhood. They're not only Vikings. They're mercenaries. And their leader has very bad plans for the place they're headed next. The POV character in Aeldred's group is attached to the people in that next place, so we sympathize with Aeldred's need for information.

Aeldred starts by ordering his son, who's maybe 20 and leading the archers, to shoot 6 of the Vikings because they killed the 6 men in the patrol. Bam. They're dead. Then he asks where the ships are. The Vikings refuse to betray their fellow mercenaries. Aeldred says kill 10 more. Bam. And we know, which Aeldred doesn't, that one of the dead men this time is a friend of the Viking leader, so now he's really not going to give the information Aeldred wants.

I have to say, I'm usually bored by battle scenes but this whole scene was riveting to me, partly because a sympathetically presented, autocratic king is not something I understand very well. But also, because we'd seen both sides of this encounter ahead of time, my sympathies were with all of them, and the horror of the scene was heightened.

That's a terrific use for multiple POV.

In contrast, I read another epic fantasy recently where the plot lines didn't seem to connect at all. I loved one POV character and was indifferent to the others. Eventually I stopped reading the parts not about the character I liked, and it turned out not to matter one bit to the story I wound up reading. That's a problem. That book felt fragmented by the multiple POVs, which didn't cluster around a central plot line.

Mela
04-22-2009, 09:50 PM
I have a few main characters - maybe five - who each dominate at certain times, when it's convenient or necessary to tell a story from a particular viewpoint or to get out information. It's tricky to maintain multiple POVs, especially in a single scene in which your other characters are itching to be center stage. It takes a lot of patience and re-writing - at least it did for me.

My book started out with a narrator who was able to get into everyone's heads but for various reasons I abandoned that and decided to have each character's POV. I thought it gave better depth to the story - and it's also highly necessary, at least for my WIP: what these chracters think of one another in the first part of the book has direct bearing on the second part.

A question to ask yourself: what does each character bring to the story? How do they further the plot? And could they easily be consolidated into someone else's character? So ask: if not for this person, this would not/would happen OR this would have happened anyway.

Each character has to be necessary to the overall plot.

DeleyanLee
04-22-2009, 10:06 PM
What I find interesting is that many posters are defining a "main character" by whether or not that character has a POV or not.

Just to pick on the classics as an example, does the fact that Sherlock Holmes never have the POV mean that he's not the, or even a main character?

To me, main characters are defined by what they DO in the story, by the actions they take. The more important to the story those actions are, the more "main" they are. Some characters are "main" for only a story arc, some are "main" for the entire length of the story. I have as many I need to get the story told. Generally, I focus on one Hero (my definition: the character who does most of the action and gets the win at the end), and don't focus on how many "main" characters I have.

And, FWIW, in the first 32K of my present MIP, the Hero has had less than 1000 words of POV. The other POV characters carry the fact that he's the Hero well enough, he doesn't need to say it in his own.

DMarie84
04-22-2009, 10:39 PM
As many others have said, it's in the execution. I would personally not have more than five, maybe six, because it can overwhelm some readers. I tend to only have one "main" character, possibly two in my stories. I'll have three or four POVs but generally those are minor characters and not what I call my "main" character.

More than that and even I get confused following my characters. But it can be done; the characters just need to stand out from one another and need to be important to the overall plot progression.

jimpickens
04-23-2009, 10:12 AM
The number main characters is not important what is how they fit into the story and how to develop them in order to get the reader to care about them.

bettielee
04-23-2009, 10:21 AM
Here is my Jeff Foxworthy impression: If your name is Robert Jordan... you might have too many characters.

Ok... serious time. I find as a reader that it is easier to remember everyone if there are more POV's. Of course, you want to make sure you use the right POV for the right action. (I admit this is easier in epic fantasy, where groups of characters are split off.) I am writing a story that's only kind-of epic - (yes, the new sub-genre! "Kind-of epic fantasy?") but all my characters are in the same general area. I choose the character that's closest to the action as the POV. It's funner that way!

Shadow Paetz
04-23-2009, 03:57 PM
A story, in my opinion, has just one main character. There may be more pov characters, but they have their own storylines and character arcs. The main plot, the one that encompasses the entire story, has one driving character. Just my two cents.

RavenCorinnCarluk
04-24-2009, 07:46 AM
As many as your story needs. As few as to not confuse your readers.


Maestro is so correct here. And I think it's the best way to put it.

And Deleyan has a great point. It's sometimes really fun to read about the main characters from someone's else's point of view.

caitysdad
04-28-2009, 01:34 AM
i think it comes down to "does this feel crowded?" You may not be able to answer that yourself and need a second or even third opinion.

Juliette Wade
04-28-2009, 02:42 AM
I think the question to ask is, how relevant are these characters to the main story? If they aren't, I'm not sure you need them. If they are, maybe you do. Try to keep in mind general limits of cognitive processing (don't fry your readers' brains :) ) but relevance is the most important issue.

virtue_summer
04-28-2009, 03:11 AM
The number of main characters that's appropriate really depends on what kind of story you're writing. One thing I think tends to hold true: Big groups of characters tend to indicate an epic work, something intended to focus not so much on the individuals themselves but on something that ties them together which is bigger than them all (think Stephen King's The Stand). Stories on one character indicate a story that's going to be intimate and personal. Stories with, say, two characters, tend to focus on their relationship with each other (romance is an obvious example but so are suspense novels where the hero and the villian are both viewpoint characters and whose scenes tend to play off one another, each thing one does affecting the other). There are always exceptions but I think it's important to consider not just a number but why you're using the viewpoints and characters you're using. The question shouldn't be "are four characters too many?" It should be "why am I using these four characters?" Four might be just right or it might be all wrong, depending on what you're trying to do with your story.

EFCollins
04-28-2009, 03:23 AM
If you have a story where there are several important type peoples, it helps to break them up a little bit. You have only two master characters: one bad guy, one good guy. Now, the bad guy need not be a human or even a living being (I have one novel idea where the entire Earth, meaning the floating mass in space not all things within, is the antagonist). Major main characters are important type peoples that, without them, the story would go kaput. The rest are minor characters. Master main characters are your main focus, the most important, major main characters are important, but not as important as the masters and minors are just what they sound like... not as important as anyone. This is how I got through my novel because there were about eight major characters. My mind is flawed though, so feel free to ignore everything I say.

Pepper
04-28-2009, 03:07 PM
At risk of reiterating the comments already made, I'll add my two cents.

Only you can tell how many POV characters are too many, because it depends on the story. I've read a very successful novel featuring just one POV character. On the other hand, I've also read an epic that featured no less than 6 POV characters. Both books were excellent.

Examine your characters. Do you *really* need every one of those characters? Ask yourself;
~ How is showing this character's POV important to the story?
~ Is this character distinct from other characters in the story?
~ Which of these characters is the *main* POV character?

Every POV character should be there for a purpose- either to further the story or further the story. ;) You should not promote a character to POV status if they are only going to be a tag-along. Can the story survive without that character's point of view? If so, scrap them.

If the character is not distinct from every other character, this can become confusing (and boring) for the reader.

I'll also repeat other comments and say that there should be a *main* POV character. I once got frustrated with a novel I was reading because every character was given equal 'weight' in the story. Any one of those characters could have been the hero. Naturally, the reader wants to see the hero win in the end. I'd gone through that whole book just to find that two characters I saw as the two heroes of the story died towards the end, with very little ceremony.


Be brutal. If the story can be successfully told using fewer POV characters, erase a few. Many newbie writers introduce POV characters simply because they like the character so much they want to give them a bigger part in the book. Often, these characters are useless- they make the same observations as the hero of the story can make.

Examine your motives, and that should give you your answer.