Many beginning writers wonder, “How many characters in a novel?” And, unfortunately, many writers approach this question by assembling a character horde. They simply have way too many characters. Worse, they seem to always be possessed to introduce these characters in large chunks. (Ah! I’m writing a scene where my main character arrives at a new school… here are twenty new secondary characters for her to meet!)
How Many Characters in a Novel?
If you find yourself tracking your characters or having to go back and look up the name of the character you want to use…if you find yourself boasting that you keep track of your cast with a spreadsheet (and you’re not writing high fantasy)…I beg you to slash the cast list.
When you’re considering “How many characters in a novel?”, keep in mind that characters on a page are people that your reader can’t see or hear. That’s where your job comes in. Because you’ve got a pretty big barrier to reality — the character is alive only in words, your reader has never seen them and oh, yes, you made them up! — you have to work that much harder to flesh out this person and make them realistic (tips on writing believable characters). In real life, a person can walk down the halls at school and notice some dorky girl named Cathy in some gross penny loafers and then remember her. Or they can spot a friend from grade school that they don’t really talk to anymore and try to avoid them. In a book, the reader has a more limited attention span for these types of secondary characters. And if Cindy or the old friend don’t appear again, there’s almost no need to mention them if you don’t have to.
Valid Reasons to Introduce Characters
- They’re going to be instrumental in the plot.
- You want to characterize an environment by introducing us briefly to one or two of its characteristic inhabitants.
Both are totally valid. You want to introduce us to the girl who your Nerd Herd MC is going to beat out for Homecoming Queen, because she’s involved in the plot. You also want to introduce us to some of the dumb jocks hanging out in the cafeteria and throwing bananas at each other because you want to provide dumb high school foils for said MC.
Cutting or Combining Characters
If you find yourself with too many characters, ask yourself honestly if anyone in your brood can be cut or, better yet, combined. One writer friend of mine ended up combining her MC’s two best friends into one person. And she did it, because it made the book stronger in the end. The characters she’d written were too similar and served similar functions to the MC. That’s another great thing to look at. If all your secondary characters serve the same function (support main character, irritate main character, bully main character), do you really need many iterations of the same thing?
If you were to look at your manuscript with a cool, objective editorial eye, which characters could you get rid of altogether? Which characters could you combine? Nothing disorients a reader more than being introduced to three, five, ten or more new secondary characters at a time. Sadly, I’ve seen this a lot lately.
Strive for Clarity and Simplicity in Your Writing
Don’t forget that you’re the one creating characters in your story. You’ve got the added bonus of having “seen” them before. As a reader, though, we’re going in completely blind. The disadvantage of having a lot of characters is that it’s almost impossible to flesh them all out to the level where they come alive. When we’re considering “How many characters in a novel?”, I’d rather have fewer characters who are much more fleshed out and involved in the plot, than lots of secondary characters who appear for a scene or two, don’t pop up again and remind me more of furniture than of human beings. (Even more tips for how to create characters in a novel.)
Strive for clarity, simplicity and not to overwhelm your reader.
Struggling with when and how to add secondary characters to your work? Hire me as your manuscript editor and we’ll work through it together.
3 Replies to “How Many Characters in a Novel?”
Hmm, one of my readers was confused by two different characters, thinking they were perhaps the same person. In my mind, I’m seeing a movie of my childhood neighborhood and school with it’s cast of characters as I write. So the cast makes sense to me. But after reading your post, I should replay the movie from the reader’s point of view. Thanks Mary
One thing I struggle with and see the same issue in other fiction is to make the characters seem distinct. Decreasing the cast of characters makes the differences between your characters larger and therefore easier to make them distinctive in voice.