How many characters is too many?

Some writers, especially ones of either fantasy or science fiction novels ask themselves, how many characters are too many? I myself asked myself this question when I first started realizing I might have a few too many characters. There are many ways to answer this and I will try to break it down for you all.

Types of Characters

First of all, before I give you any extra information, you have three different kinds of characters you can populate the world with.
1. Primary/Core/Main Characters are the characters that force your story to move forward. Because of their thoughts, reactions and decisions, the reader is taken from one place in the story to another. Their experiences are usually shared with the reader.
2. Secondary Characters are the characters who play integral roles in the story but for briefer moments in time. They may enter and leave a room, but you won’t see what happens to them before or after they’ve done so. They may be interesting, blunt, or damn annoying, but they are there many kinds out there and they help the story by interacting with the Primary Characters. Some secondary characters may, in fact, be given a point-of-view scene, where you focus only on those characters, it could be that they uncover information vital to the story that the main characters shouldn’t know yet, or it could be the lead up to their pathetic death (usually murder mystery).
3. Tertiary/Triennial/Extras Characters are the characters who fill the world. You may get a name, an occupation, and perhaps even some backstory, but you usually only meet these characters once or twice. Sometimes they have no backstory or dialogue and you just see a man nod to the main character before he/she gets mugged. Their importance lies in their minimal assistance to the story through exchanging goods, information, low-grade challenges, knowledge, or sometimes just to make the world seem more full of life. Basically, they are just there for their small purpose in the story.
And before I go any further, just remember that there are no real rules on how few or many characters you can have in your story. Some great novels like Richard Matheson’s I am Legend or The Martian by Andy Weir or even Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe only had a very limited amount of characters in the stories. Whereas Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series has dozens. Depending on what you’re writing, you can figure out how many characters you’ll need by thinking about it long enough.

The Signs

1. Lack of excitement with your characters. We need to visit certain secondary characters, and the scenes you write might be boring with the characters having nothing to do or talk about. This means you’ve probably given too many characters something to do and it leaves less for the overall story. Remedy this by lessening the number of characters or adding personal dilemmas into the story.
2. Poof, they’re gone! Writers often have nothing to do for characters and decide to send them away for prolonged periods of time just to get them out of the way. They disappear and this puts them in danger of being forgotten, by both the writer and the reader. Not only that, but you should question whether they were really that important in the beginning.
3. Similarities are endless. Writers sometimes forget that the main character isn’t the only important one to develop. When this happens, you get characters with similar or identical appearances, dialogue styles, tastes, hobbies, outlooks, and even backgrounds. The reader might not notice when it comes to most of those things, but when the reader starts to question which character is talking, that’s when you’ve made a mistake either with dialogue style, tags, or action tags (we’ll get into those another day). Now, if you just have two characters that love mushroom soup, you have no problems.

The Cause

You know what the kinds of characters there are now, so what are the main causes for too many characters? Let’s just tell you what they are instead of you asking yourself that question.
Primary Characters are hardly ever the cause, because there is usually only one main character and sometimes two. Unless of course you are writing a sweeping epic, or some such like Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, or George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series where more than one main character is needed to push the story forward from different parts of the world, different dimensions, or even different moments in time.
Tertiary Characters or extras are never the cause. You could have a thousand throughout your novel and it won’t matter. Because nobody pays them much attention. They’re fillers, you can use as many as is necessary to fill a ballroom, or a diner, or a battlefield. So don’t worry about cutting them back.
Secondary Characters are some of the most important characters in your story, they have plenty of dialogue, goals, problems, and backstory. Some of them might even have a point-of-view scene or two. This is why having a hundred secondary characters makes it a bit hard for a reader to focus on the story, enjoy the content, or even remember half the characters.
So now that we know what causes us to have too many, let’s see what we can do about it.

Less is More

You know how I said there are no rules to writing characters into your story? There aren’t, but there is one critical suggestion I will give you, and that is… Wait, let me just ask you a question first. When you host a cook a meal, fix a light-bulb, repair a car, or make home improvements, how many people help you? The answer is… as many as necessary. And that’s the critical suggestion I’ve given you.
If you find that one of your characters can quite easily fill the role of another character, then two characters should become one. And of course, you should only consider that if that one character can take over every single role the other character had. Let’s say you had two characters that were your protagonist’s friends, one is going to betray him/her, and one is going to remain loyal until the end. Even if the loyal friend can take over the betrayer’s role up until the betrayal, you can’t, because you need both of them for that part of the plot.
Moving on… You can often believe that a character is important or necessary to the story, when they are only damaging all the time and effort you’ve put into making this wonderful world (and not in a good, villainous type way either). There are times when a character only serves to serve the plot, not advance it, not detour it, but to serve it. And this creates a character or characters who are only created for elementary reasons, like deaths of thousands of nameless people, characters only given life to spread humour, or sadness, or joy. Instead of making characters for a single reason, try to remove these characters and spread their joy/sadness/ humour throughout other characters.
In saying all this, you might have a jokester, or a depressed stay-at-home type character, or even just a character that never feels anything other than joy. You don’t need to remove these characters, because those qualities are a vital part of who they are, two one-dimensional characters with roguish natures could be merged to create one flawed, conflicted, internally contradictory character. You only need to try to remove those that aren’t two or three-dimensional.
The dialogue between characters is something you really need to look at. It’s hard for a reader to stay focused and understand who is talking when more than three characters are talking at once. Try talking to three or more friends, have a long conversation with them and remember which of them said what. It would be quite hard. Same goes for characters. Unless you have straightforward characters with extremely defining traits, it’ll be hard to follow the conversation. It’s okay to have more than three characters in a room but try to leave it to three or fewer people having a conversation at a time. Not only is it hard to follow, but the story will tend to lose excitement unless you make each character have short comments which would just make the dialogue unrealistic and boring.
In short, two characters that can do the exact same thing throughout the story can become one, and the fewer characters you have that are simple, the more characters you will have that become complex. Both ways will lessen the number of characters your story will have. Dialogue is better kept between fewer people at one time.

For my Story, How Many?

What is your story? Depending on the type of story, you’ll generally have more or fewer characters than most.
Fantasy – Generally has more than most, as you have to introduce completely new and incredible things to the reader that they may have never seen or even heard of before. These stretch from guides, mentors, enemies, friends, family, other races, government officials, and others.
Romance – Usually has less than most novels as the focus is on two or more people falling in and/or out of love. Then there are secondary characters like exes, relatives, friends, and enemies. Still fewer than most.
Mystery – Mainly, mysteries are uncovered by one or two people, sometimes more especially if the mystery becomes an adventure. So, we have the protagonist, and those trying to help and hinder the protagonist’s search to uncover the mystery. This could be as little as three, or as many as needed such as the cult in Hot Fuzz trying to stop Nicholas Angel by any means necessary.
Comedy – Never having the same amount of characters, a comedy novel has as many characters as it needs to tell the joke that the book is themed on. For instance, a good friend of mine wrote a comedic short story about a ghost following his zombie corpse walking around munching on people and decomposing. But, even though that was a short story, it only had a couple of characters, and most of them were extras to help comedic value. Some comedy novels like Captain Underpants just need a tiny handful of people to go wild with the comedy. I think, from what I’ve read, fewer characters is the way to go, but you can do whatever you wish.
Drama – That in itself differs mostly based on the origins of the drama. Does it involve one family, a group of neighbours, a community, or even a city? You can’t often put too many characters into a drama because then you’d be having too many people in a family, etc. Match the number of characters to the scope of the story.

Of course, I didn’t add extras into these genres, because as I’ve already said, you can have as many as you want. Just be careful they don’t become secondary characters. There are also more genres than what I’ve mentioned, in case you thought I thought there were only those ones.

What We’ve Learned

Now it’s time to wrap this up. You should now understand what types of characters there are, a few signs to be able to tell you have too many characters, the leading cause of too many characters, how fewer characters usually means better-developed characters and tighter plots, and some guidelines on how many characters your story should have based on genre.
If you’ve read all of this and you think you might have anything else to add or any questions, let me know and I can either put what you add into the post or answer your questions to the best of my ability!
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How many characters is too many?

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