How many characters should a book have? While some set down rules about how many primary and secondary characters you have, few books really adhere to this rule. Some very big sellers have enormous casts of characters. Ken Follett, Edward Rutherford and other writers of similar epics spring to mind. JK Rowling is another, try listing all the primary and secondary characters from Harry Potter and you might be surprised.
The belief is that too many characters will confuse the reader, but I feel that a book should have as many as necessary. You should never artificially inflate or deflate the number of characters. Too many can be confusing, and frustrating too if the character seems pointless. Too few and you might cover old ground too often and the text could get stale. If you simply must have a large cast of character then it is important that you follow some of these critical guidelines.
Keep Them Distinct
The most important thing is that your characters are distinct from each other; this is especially important if they have similar sounding names. I’m finding it relatively easy because each of my characters come from a different era, but I also know I should not take it for granted that the reader will distinguish Morwenna – my 18th century Inn Keeper – from Kensa, my Iron Age Warrior Queen. It’s important to refer to the times they lived, or their setting, so the reader does not get confused. Refer to their dress and their appearance, and keep their tone and interactions distinct. If characters seem too similar, then consider merging them.
Introduce them Gradually
Treat the introduction of your characters like a drip feed rather than a waterfall. Nobody wants to feel bombarded with information and when it comes to entertainment like a novel, that is especially true. Confuse your reader at your peril, they are likely to put it down if there are as many characters as pages and if you try to introduce them all as quickly as possible. There is rarely a good reason to introduce them all quickly either. Think about Lord of the Rings and the fact that some highly important characters are not introduced until much later on in each book.
Make the Reader Care About Each One
If the reader cares about the character, can sympathise and empathise with their position, and they have an emotional stake in the character, they are far more likely to remember them. Caring about them needn’t be all positive – it is simply an emotional reaction and that emotional reaction can be wanting the hero to succeed and the villain to fail or be found out – that is caring about the fate of a character.
Compile a Cast List
Some writers do it, especially if they have a large cast – Lindsey Davis and Ken Follett spring to mind here. I have opted to do just that for my current WIP. Here is my list of characters (so far) for Salmonweird.
Salmonweir Tourist Board: A Guide to the Non-Living Residents
Salmonweir has 300 residents so not everybody you see will be listed here. As you wander through the village, you may wish to use this list to encourage your children’s interest in the people you see from our history, and ask if they can identify anybody noted here. Feel free to ask us for autographs, we’re very friendly and probably the least scary ghosts you are ever likely to meet!
DI Karl Blackman: The village’s only living relative (at present). A retired Detective Inspector from Cambridge who left the leafy streets of the university city for the very sleepy village of Salmonweir and what he hoped would be a quiet retirement.
Hook Hand Harry: Salmonweir’s most famous son! He is an 18th century pirate, captain of the galleon known as The Lady Catherine. You will nearly always see him aboard or around the ship, otherwise try The King’s Head pub. We advise against accepting a rum drinking challenge.
Brother Jowan: A Benedictine Monk who visited Salmonweir in the late 1340s as part of the effort to provide medical relief for the victims of The Black Death. His medical training consists of chantry, herbs and dispersing miasma with incense.
Eli: A Civil War era Puritan preacher who visited Salmonweir as part of Lord High Protector Oliver Cromwell’s efforts to subdue to the pro-royalists in Cornwall. He assumed primacy over the village church at some point. It is rare you will see Jowan and Eli together. If you do, run away, quickly.
Dora Wilson: Wife of a war hero who died aboard HMS Hood during World War II. You will mostly see her on a bench overlooking the sea on the western side of the village.
Morwenna: Wife of a former innkeeper who, upon her reappearance in the 21st century, decided she rather quite fancied the job once performed by her husband. Now landlord of The King’s Head. She pulls a good pint! Incidentally, The King’s Head has one of the largest ranges of cider anywhere in Cornwall.
Babajide: In life, he was Morwenna’s and her former husband’s slave. Now, he is a barman and administrator for the village’s tourist board.
Kensa: Our very own Iron Age Warrior Queen! She was a chieftain of Dumnonia in life around the time of the Roman invasion. Salmonweir was not founded until centuries after her death; nevertheless she has come to see it as home. Caution: do not ask her about Boudicca.
Cato: A Roman Naval officer who was part of a scouting mission along the coast of Dumnonia when his trireme sank.
Corin Penrose: An early 19th century shopkeeper who can’t understand how when his daughter describes a person as “cool” and another as “hot” why they do not mean the opposite thing. He runs the shop and stocks a range of local produce and big name brands.
Ebrel Penrose: Corin’s daughter. She certainly has not struggled to adjust. She can’t wait for the day her father permits her to have a mobile phone despite that nobody else in Salmonweir has one and not knowing anyone outside the village.
Wilhelmina Yorke: Miss Yorke is our local poet and spends most of her time in the pub compiling sonnets. For a small fee, she may write you a poem! Proceeds are split between Miss Yorke and the Salmoweir Tourist Board.
2 thoughts on “How Many Characters is Too Many?”
This is a really helpful discussion. I’m wondering about numbers of characters at the moment, and have been thinking of merging some. I am also trying to figure out the best way to make characters work in a story focused around a journey, so characters are introduced, are important for a while, then aren’t seen again. I worry about whether there’s enough continuity or if it allows for enough character development. Anyway, thanks! And your cast list is very entertaining!
Glad I was able to help you cut through some of the fog! It’s easy to get anxious about our characters, especially when so many people offer different “rules” about how many we should have. The only rule is that there are no rules; just do what is appropriate for the story.
The book is quite kooky and I’ve been careful not to reveal too many of the character quirks here but I will say that Wilhelmina Yorke is the world’s worst Elizabethan Poet. She has zero flair for words and that will certainly come through in the story.