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Thread: How many main characters is too many?

  1. #1
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    How many main characters is too many?

    I have a story in my head about a group of ex-pat women, their relationships, and how they cope with living abroad. Each woman will have different things going on in their lives - newlyweds, happily married, constantly fighting, with kids, without, etc. I will, without a doubt, have at least four main female characters. But can I have one or two more? At which point will it be confusing to the reader, do you think? There will be several other women in the group, but they will just be on the sidelines of the scenes.

  2. #2
    practical experience, FTW
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    What you might want to consider is the length of the story you intend to write. Say it's going to be a hundred thousand words long. With four main characters, that gives you twenty-five thousand words to develop each character. With six, you'll have only sixteen thousand words. That will affect how far you can develop each character and how much of their story you can tell.

  3. #3
    Huh. kkbe's Avatar
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    Or, you could have one, and the other peripheral characters and their stories dance around her, each touching her in some way, enhancing her story, bringing a richer understanding of your mc.
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  4. #4
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    Quote Originally Posted by ssjohnson View Post
    At which point will it be confusing to the reader, do you think?
    When the writer makes it confusing. Sorry, but there's no magic number of main characters for when readers get confused, it depends on the skill of the writer.

  5. #5
    practical experience, FTW MakanJuu's Avatar
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    Personally, I don't think it matters, as long as each character has a reason for being a part of the story in the first place.

    Once again referring to Terry Goodkind as an example, he has roughly 20 recurring protagonists in his eleven novel series, but if he can't think of something for a character to be doing that ties into the story at large well enough, they sit one out.

    However, I will make a point that these are recurring characters, not Main Characters. In fact, there are only five main characters in the series & some take the backseat in one novel, while others get their chance to shine, kind of like a TV show that will give one MC a character building arc, then another.

    All in all, you should at least pick one or two favorites that you will defer to as main POVs & who are the most involved in the plot out of the others. Maybe a good example for your story would be a group "confedante" who has to deal with everyone elses issues as well as her own?
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  6. #6
    practical experience, FTW srgalactica's Avatar
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    There is no hard and fast rule. Make sure the reader isn't confused and use only as many main characters as your story needs.



  7. #7
    writer, rider, reader...ex-pat! BethS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ssjohnson View Post
    I have a story in my head about a group of ex-pat women, their relationships, and how they cope with living abroad.
    Nothing wrong with an ensemble cast, but you do want to make sure each character has enough space for her own part of the story to develop.

  8. #8
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  9. #9
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    Quote Originally Posted by blacbird View Post
    8,417.

    caw
    pssh. I have 8,418.

  10. #10
    practical experience, FTW LJD's Avatar
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    This is a really common structure in women's fiction, and I think it works best with 4 or fewer. Otherwise you just don't have the time (word count) to develop each story in much detail.

  11. #11
    SF Author M R Mortimer's Avatar
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    Having many characters can enrich the story. It can also damage the story. It all depends on what the story is.

    Sometimes, if the story setting or plot involves something huge or complex more characters can lend believability and stop you from accidentally creating a 'super character' because the characters need each other, else the job will never be done.

    On the other hand, sometimes less is more and having too many characters hurts things. For example, you don't want fourteen characters crowding for space if you are trying to cast a sense of desolate isolation. Intimacy in a story needs less characters in some settings.

    Similarly, if want to convey a feeling of "we are all in this together," then a single character won't cut it, even in the most drastic of circumstances.

    Any hard and fast rules regarding number of characters would be a mistake. We might miss the next great novel if we enforced such a thing.

    The trick is to be honest with yourself about your ability. Can you create a story with rich detail to the characters and have six without confusing the reader? Then go for it. Do you feel you are not getting enough difference and distinction between them and thus it will confuse the reader? then rethink it, and do justice to your vision the best you can in a different way that uses your current abilities.

    The other choice is to put it aside until you feel more confident in your skill with characters, if the several POV approach is something you feel is instrumental to the delivery.

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  12. #12
    figuring it all out Luprec's Avatar
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    As many as you can get away with.

  13. #13
    Author, Designer, Mad Scientist Bertram Fox's Avatar
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    A good trick, which I've found myself using once or twice without planning to, is to start with one or two major characters and a bunch of others whose stories are given equal weight, and gradually edge out the secondaries, like a slow move to closeup, till by the end of the book it's all about one or two people. The other characters are still there, but they've gone from stories to background.
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  14. #14
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    Quote Originally Posted by Buffysquirrel View Post
    What you might want to consider is the length of the story you intend to write. Say it's going to be a hundred thousand words long. With four main characters, that gives you twenty-five thousand words to develop each character. With six, you'll have only sixteen thousand words. That will affect how far you can develop each character and how much of their story you can tell.
    This, all the way.

    Quote Originally Posted by blacbird View Post
    8,417.

    caw
    Err, I know you're joking, but even if I had a series that consisted of 100 books, I still wouldn't reach that high number of characters, man.

    Quote Originally Posted by Little Ming View Post
    pssh. I have 8,418.
    I'm going to attempt to write one story with that many characters, as in one BOOK. We'll see the word count.

    Quote Originally Posted by Luprec View Post
    As many as you can get away with.
    I disagree.

    Quote Originally Posted by Bertram Fox View Post
    A good trick, which I've found myself using once or twice without planning to, is to start with one or two major characters and a bunch of others whose stories are given equal weight, and gradually edge out the secondaries, like a slow move to closeup, till by the end of the book it's all about one or two people. The other characters are still there, but they've gone from stories to background.

    This too.



    My 2 cents: When you notice a character is only there for 1 or 2 pages, unless he's going to be there for a short period of time so the main characters have him there to support the plot, in other words a character that betrayed the mafia, for example, and the Mafiosos need to kill him to go on with their plans, that character is not necessary, so cut them out, and cut out parts where he or she's mentioned, too. Only have characters that are important to story and plot.

  15. #15
    has no socks JulianneQJohnson's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by BethS View Post
    Nothing wrong with an ensemble cast, but you do want to make sure each character has enough space for her own part of the story to develop.
    I like this. This made me think of the play "Tea," which is about a group of five Japanese "war brides" and their varying level of success adjusting to a new culture. Itís a powerful show with 5 lead characters working in ensemble. It makes you care about each and everyone within the boundaries of a single play.

    How much is too many? I donít know. But I certainly think you could try for your six and make it work. If it doesnít, you could slide a couple to supporting roles.
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  16. #16
    figuring it all out Zoro's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by M R Mortimer View Post
    Having many characters can enrich the story. It can also damage the story. It all depends on what the story is.
    ...

    The trick is to be honest with yourself about your ability. Can you create a story with rich detail to the characters and have six without confusing the reader? Then go for it. Do you feel you are not getting enough difference and distinction between them and thus it will confuse the reader? then rethink it, and do justice to your vision the best you can in a different way that uses your current abilities.
    I have an ensemble cast in my own novel, and this above makes a lot of sense to me.

  17. #17
    practical experience, FTW Benedetto Youssef's Avatar
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    Ask George Martin, he'll probably tell you somewhere around 200...main characters that is.
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  18. #18
    practical experience, FTW Finis's Avatar
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    Two.

    But how you approach that is as variable as the wind. If I recall, Stephen King did a book with four novellas in it, each seemingly about a different character, once you get toward the end though you realize it's all about one girl, who is a mutual side character in each story. Is she the main character? or is it four main characters. I think you could argue either way.

    But for most stories, I think one main character is enough. Ron and Hermione went through great character arcs, and were wonderfully developed, but the story is about Harry. Epics like Song of Ice and Fire annoy me. I don't want a new character every chapter, I want one. It breaks immersion for me to have to replant myself in someone else's head.

    That's just my personal preference as a reader though. (Which makes it kind of my personal preference as a writer too I guess.)
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