View Full Version : How many characters is too much in your novel?

01-21-2010, 01:11 PM
My question to you all is how many is too much character is too much in one novel. I do not want to confuse the reader with too many characters in my mystery novel. I am just curious is too many characters will turn off a reader to further read your novel!~ Keep on writing!~

01-21-2010, 01:14 PM
Oh boy, am I wondering this same thing. My current one has a pretty big cast. Of active main players I have um...about six. But if you add the kind of on the side characters, it's probably twelve or fourteen. I'm worried about the same thing, but not all of the characters are necessarily important and some aren't going to be developed all that much because of that. My main focus for development lies in the main three, four if you count the villain. I'd love to see the opinions on this.

01-21-2010, 01:38 PM
My question to you all is how many is too much character is too much in one novel. I do not want to confuse the reader with too many characters in my mystery novel. I am just curious is too many characters will turn off a reader to further read your novel!~ Keep on writing!~

Not an easy question to answer. The first issue is, how many are really important, and how many are bit players. My best unpublishable novel had four really major characters (two of whom serve as 3rd person limited POV characters), and four or five secondary but important and continuing characters, along with however many extras were necessary. My current unpublishable WIP also, quite by coincidence, has four major characters, one of whom is the 1st person narrator, and a similar number of secondaries. I didn't plan things this way, it just worked out, and maybe that's the way my brain sees stories.

I'd say anything more than 27 major characters is almost certain to be too many. That's about as categorical as I can be.


01-21-2010, 01:47 PM
I have three main characters; 7 minor characters; and a range of walk on parts.

01-21-2010, 02:00 PM
How many characters is too much in your novel?
32,768 would probably be too many. Unless you're Tolkein.

01-21-2010, 02:07 PM
I can think of plenty of great books that have upwards of ten main characters, at least 5 being key, with their own goals, sub-plots and developments, etc.

The main thing that gets to me (as a reader) with lots of characters? Definitely when they are all introduced at once, or closely together and I have to concentrate on who's who, and keep flicking back pages to remind myself about who the character is.

A friend loaned me Marian Keye's 'Brightest Star in the Sky' (Something like that? - her new one) and she introduces about 12 characters in the first chapter. Headspin. The next day, went to read the next chapter and couldnt remember who's who...didnt read the book, was too much effort... I want to relax while reading, not play memory/concentration games :)

01-21-2010, 04:52 PM
How many characters is too much in your novel?

One more than you need to efficiently tell your story.

01-21-2010, 05:42 PM
As long as your characters are important, and you introduce them the right way so you don't make it too difficult for the reader to remember them, it doesn't matter.

I have 3 main characters, 7 minor, four walk-ins (I like gothicangel's term), and 2 main animal characters. That's for a 45,000 word book.

01-21-2010, 09:41 PM
I'm still going to have to find this out. My WIP is about a community of 300 people, who are themselves only a branch of a larger population. I'd say about 20 of these have a role in the novel and these are representative of larger groups (of peers, colleagues and family). There are prominent characters in these groups, as there naturally would be, and these are the secondary characters. I have about five of those, then four or five supporting (transiently), and one protagonist (used to be two).

I've made life hard for myself, haven't I? I think I've developed quite a dynamic community so far but it still needs work.

Michael Parks
01-21-2010, 10:09 PM
My WIP has four main characters, twelve centrally-supporting characters, and a host of bit characters throughout.

As long as you integrate them naturally/comfortably in the story, and they are relevant and scaled to the needs of the story, you can have quite a few. I imagine that if you lose the scale on one or more characters, you risk threatening the story's focus and flow.

Chasing the Horizon
01-22-2010, 02:08 AM
I don't know if there's such a thing as too many characters. Stephen King has some books with massive casts.

I've honestly lost count of the total number of named characters in my books. I have tons of walk-in characters with names. And my sea-faring fantasy series has a massive cast of minor recurring characters (crew members on the various ships, mostly). My record for most POV characters in a 3rd limited book is 9, and I have 15 major characters in the omniscient book I'm outlining (which is why it's omniscient, lol). The smallest number of characters in any of my finished books is 3 POV characters with 12 important supporting characters. None of my beta readers found it confusing at all. The important thing is to pace the introductions out and be really good at character building so that all your characters are memorable and distinct.

Claudia Gray
01-22-2010, 02:52 AM
As many as the story requires and you can handle. Gone With The Wind has more than 100 characters who have a defined arc through the novel. There are other novels that might just have two or three. What works, works.

Linda Adams
01-22-2010, 02:54 AM
I tend to run high in the character count because of the type of story I'm writing. The one I just finished has 4 main characters, and a total of 30 named characters. I often have four to five characters in each scene (five seems to be the max I can handle; six, and I start leaving one of the characters out).

The one thing I've learned is that isn't a number that defines too much--it's what you do with it. With my Civil War book, I dumped 11 named characters into the first chapter, and the comments I got back were along the lines of readers needing to write the names down to keep track of who was who. I ended up restructuring the beginning completely so that I only needed three, and then folded the others in gradually as needed.

I also do something with the character to make them memorable so that the next time the reader sees the character, they're likely to have not forgotten who the person is.

For large casts, it may also be helpful to keep a quick reference list of all the character names. I had one name that I had a lot of trouble spelling, and a list was very helpful.

01-22-2010, 05:03 PM
i will, as i always do when this question comes up, direct you to terry pratchetts books.

discworld readers could, with relatively little effort i'm sure, name you several hundred independant characters and be able to tell you a little about them.

however, i do hasten to add that these characters were gradually introduced over the course of some 30 novels, one or two characters at a time.

the same goes for a single book. if you feel you need a character then bring them in, but never tell us more than we need toi know about them, and introduce them gradually

Lady Ice
01-22-2010, 09:47 PM
If you're going to have a big cast:

- Don't introduce everybody at once
- Establish the character's relationships properly
- Don't pick names which are too similar (No Lily and Lizzy. Might just be able to get away with it if they were twins, but it's still annoying)
- Don't just throw characters in for the sake of it
- Keep track of their character arcs. Don't abandon them half-way through.

One of my books had 16 main characters (in fairness, they were the only characters apart from some supernatural stuff). Because the setting stayed the same and the characters were introduced fairly on, it allowed me time to develop the characters and flesh them out.

James D. Macdonald
01-22-2010, 10:01 PM
How many characters is too much in your novel?

One more than you need to efficiently tell your story.


01-22-2010, 10:11 PM
"Don't try for too many characters. The center of gravity should reside in two: he and she." ~Anton Chekov (http://mockingbird.creighton.edu/ncw/chekwrit.htm)