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?

Back From Hiatus

It has been too long, my fellow writers and readers and lovers of the craft. Seven whole months after the fiasco with my laptop and losing my writing. I sat back for a while and stopped writing because it hit me hard, and I guess after that I never bothered to write on here again. That is… Until now.

I began to work on Shadows of Imeria again a while ago and have been trudging through the edits slowly. Should have had all of them done already but life tends to get in the way and you lose traction.

I got myself a new job, coaching children things like basketball, soccer, cricket, AFL, and gymnastics along with something called Ninja Gym. I was forced to find a new residence and was days away from having to live on the street, when I found the house I’m currently staying in and I have some really kind roommates. I got myself a wonderful girlfriend who takes up more of my time than I’d like to admit, sorry Nikita.

All in all, the last seven months have worked out for me, but between my new job, applying for houses, spending time getting to know my new partner in crime, and straightening my life back out I haven’t had much time to write or even write a blog post on here. I haven’t even read a single book this year whereas I read over 20 last year.

So onto the end of this update, I plan to write more blog posts, possibly tell you about my writing and my plans for the future, maybe I will give you all some more insight into my writing process and even throw in some things to help budding writers like some of you may be. I can touch the basics when it comes to creating characters, building worlds, some finer points of storytelling, and maybe throw a couple of random things to surprise you all.

Until next time (which will probably be very soon),
Your friendly writer friend, Jhaydun Dinan

Back From Hiatus

Shadows of Imeria – September 2017 Update

It is with my most heartfelt condolences that I tell you this news. On the 21st of September at 6:20 pm, both my laptop and my harddrive that have the most recent backups of my writing (about 3-4 months worth) were stolen from a train station.

The train station and the police station next door both said one hasn’t turned up and it’ll take weeks to get video surveillance. So it was the worst day of my life. I broke down in public, cried in public and missed my bus home after it.

So the only progress I still have from that time is the time and effort I took to fill my printed manuscript with sticky notes about what needs to be edited before the edits begin.

I’m so sorry everyone. I shouldn’t have been so stupid as to leave my laptop where someone can just pick it up. You won’t get updates from me for a couple of months, as I’m just going to be rewriting everything… You might get updates similar to posts in the past, and you might get updates on books I read, but nothing fancy. I’ll see you all someday soon.

Shadows of Imeria – September 2017 Update

Shadows of Imeria – August 2017 Update

So, I underestimated the length of time it would take to complete one of the tasks I have given myself once again. The revision for my novel lasted up until a week ago on the 20th of August. Part of the lapse in judgment may be the fact I landed myself a full-time job at the local convenience store and also lost that job.

Anyhow, during the last week, I have edited the first four chapters of my novel, and because it took that long for only two chapters, I believe the editing process will last a while. Four chapters a week and 28 chapters to edit means I will complete 12 a month, and that’s two and a quarter months I need to spend editing my first draft. So I will be finished with the edits in the middle of October if all goes well. I might be wrong, and it could take me an extra month to finish the edits off, so I apologise, you guys won’t be hearing from me much over the next two months. I will try and update you guys again once a month with my progress.

Once I have finished the edits, and the novel is sent to my beta readers, you can expect me to work on a few blog posts directed at writers. You guys might be getting bored with my updates, and I am sorry if you are. I will just have to say, with these four chapters edited, I am extremely happy with how beautiful the story is becoming.

Shadows of Imeria – August 2017 Update

Shadows of Imeria – July 2017 Update

Damn, if I had known last month how much effort needed to go into this, I would have started sooner.

I estimated around 15k for the worldbuilding document, which I thought was reasonable. By the time the fifteenth of July came around, I had turned it into a 29k word document with 60 pages. Absolutely crazy I tell you.

After that, I managed to fix the travel trajectories and timelines. So I was able to carefully and accurately detail how long it took to get from one place to another and give my novel a decent timeline. It takes a long time to travel around a continent once or twice without the luxury of a car.

I then worked on the timeline in order to get a better understanding of how much time has really passed in the world that Imeria rests in. From 5000 BBD all the way through to 1746 ABD which is when the first novel begins. I haven’t included the main events from the novel into the timeline just yet, but I will as I go through the editing of the novel which comes after this revision stage that I have reached.

And there is the revision stage I was just talking about, showing a good 12 months and 250k words worth of work in one workspace. I started it on the 20th of this month and as of today, I am halfway through it. All of those revisions will soon turn into edits on my computer towards the second half of this next month. Not only that, but I will be adding a lot more content, removing content and even changing some of the content that already exists. All of the worldbuilding I have been working on is going to pay off tenfold and I hope you will all see it show in my writing next year when Shadows of Imeria gets published.

This next month I am going to be even busier, maybe even too busy to read a new novel. Although that saddens me, I think the work I put into my novel will be worth it. I hope to see you all again soon!

Shadows of Imeria – July 2017 Update

Shadows of Imeria – June 2017 Update

To start with, I have to tell you all I made an amazing revelation. Suddenly, while working on the worldbuilding for Shadows of Imeria, I realized I can turn the first book into two books as I will have enough content for it. Things will have to be changed a little, but it will definitely turn out to be better in the end. It will increase the length of the story and will definitely not ruin the plot or pacing. It’ll give me room to truly show you how beautiful the world is that the continent of Imeria resides in.

Now, onto progress, every single character profile has been completely finished and printed off for reference points when I get to the editing stage. There were twenty character profiles completed and they stand between 3k and 5k words each, it was tedious and a little annoying at times but I am glad that I managed to get them done, because now the characters feel even more amazing and I managed to get so much more to write about them in the books. I also realized during that time that there was a character I needed to cut out and one character who isn’t who he seems (sorry, can’t spoil too much for you all).

Worldbuilding has almost been completely finished, with villages, cities, and settlements truly becoming what they were meant to be. I turned the measly 5k and 12-page Word document into a 12k and 36-page document so far and I’m still going.
I’ve finished detailing the entire history of the world and how it came to be. I’ve figured out how education works, how the economy figures into everything, and a few more things.
I still need to finish detailing wars that have been waged by writing them out, who waged it, who won, how many casualties, etc. I need to complete city details such as the histories of cities and their reason for existing. Write up the start of organizations, who leads them and what their purposes are. Flesh out the culture of each race and how they came to be the way they are. I am working on the magic system and that is developing nicely too. My world is becoming more and more beautiful with each passing day.

When it comes to worldbuilding, there’s a lot of work that needs to go into it. I needed to, and for some things still need to:

  • flesh out each culture
  • make a somewhat stable economy
  • fix any problems I have with the factions/groups in the story
  • create cuisine and know what kind of foods are available
  • create and organize governments, to figure out how each city is governed
  • mend any holes that are in the history of the world
  • add more structure to the magic system
  • figure out the military powers in the world and what kind of structure and rules they follow.
  • create medicines and remedies used by the inhabitants of the world
  • flesh out the details of the people in the world
  • add more to the settings that the story takes place in
  • diversify and manage the races of the world to become even more unique and amazing
  • add incredible amounts of details to regions and the cities that dwell there
  • create and add more when it comes to religion, faith, and belief
  • create and discover what kind of technologies are used around the world
  • write the details of each war that has occurred in the past

With almost everything done, I just need to give it a light polish, I will be printing off the worldbuilding document and then I will be starting the revision of my novel. The revision should start in or just after the first week of next month. I am still super excited about being able to turn this novel into two separate books and I hope you all are as well!

Shadows of Imeria – June 2017 Update

Shadows of Imeria – May 2017 Update

And, there’s no update. I’ve been hit by the worst, the biggest, the ugliest spurt of procrastination and lack of motivation in my life.

I’m now working six days a week, eight hours a day and it’s killing my motivation and imagination. By the time I get home, after eight hours of work and almost two hours of travel (an hour to work and an hour back) I make my dinner, eat my dinner, do some kind of fun activity, relax for a moment or two and then I go to bed.

The only day off I get is a Sunday and I usually try to clean my house, fix social media, socialize, get some photography in and then I get to write a little before going to bed. It’s a continuous cycle of draining, busy weeks.

All I can say, guys, is that I’m trying. I’m still trying to work out a decent schedule so I can get more writing in. So this update was more to do with me complaining about how much less time I have for writing these days rather than how much writing I’ve got done.

I’m really sorry guys. I’ll try better next month, try even harder.

Shadows of Imeria – May 2017 Update