How Many Characters Are Too Many Characters?

In fantasy—possibly more than any other genre—there is a desire to have huge casts of characters (The Malazan Book of the Fallen or Game of Thrones, anyone?). But where do we draw the line? How many characters are too many?

It would be nice to be able to give a number, but unfortunately there is no way to do this. As with so many questions about writing and editing there is no specific answer only some fairly loose guidelines. So let’s look at those guidelines, as flimsy as they may be, and let’s keep in mind the definitions we recently discussed about protagonists, secondary characters, and tertiary characters.

A novel only needs one protagonist. That’s not to say you can’t have more, but since the protagonist is the main character and has a full story arc it is best to keep the number of protagonists quite low, meaning one to three is probably plenty especially if you are a new author still learning the ropes.

Secondary characters are where you need to be careful because they are interesting, readers care about them, and writers like to distract themselves from the corner they’ve written their protagonist into by exploring what’s happening with them. Secondary characters are where the most danger lies. If you spend too much time with them, they will soon make themselves known as protagonists, and as a writer you will love them too much to shoo them back into their place.

You can have a lot of tertiary characters. They are the baristas of our novels (sometimes literally) they give our protagonists caffeine so they can get through their day. Readers don’t need to know the back stories of these characters. Their presence is purely functional. Like secondary characters if you spend too much time with them, or give them too much description they will try to exceed their station in story life.

Think of the story you are trying to tell. Now think about the smallest number of characters you’d need to tell the story. Try to stick as close to that number as possible and resist the urge to elevate secondary characters to protagonists and give tertiary characters too much page time.

Use as many characters as you need to tell the story but if you can’t remember all their names you’ve probably crossed a line. Some readers love huge casts so when deciding on how many characters you need it is a good idea to keep your ideal reader in mind.

Do you like stories with large casts or do you prefer a smaller collection of characters? Let me know in the comments.

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