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Friday, June 7

Does Your Novel Have Too Many Characters?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

In Wednesday's post, Robyn Hood Black shared an exercise about testing the relationships of your characters to each other using cut out pieces of paper. I loved this idea, and it got me thinking that this was a great way to test a very common writing question:

Does my novel have too many characters?

This is hard to answer because "too much" is subjective. An epic high fantasy is likely to have more characters than a personal contemporary story. Even making a list of your characters isn't always helpful, because many will be walk on or throwaway characters, and knowing that, they carry less "weight" in a list. You might not even list them because they're so unimportant, yet they take up valuable room in the reader's memory.

My twist on Robyn's exercise can help you find the answer.

Step One: Take a sheet of paper and draw two boxes in the middle, evenly spaced apart. Write your protagonist's name in one box, your antagonist's name in the other. Add boxes if you have more than one of either. (If you find yourself adding a lot of boxes, you already know you have a problem)

(More on figuring out who your protagonist is here)

Step Two: Start adding boxes with the other character's names in them. Below the protagonist if they're directly connected to her, above the antagonist if they're connected to him. Put down:
  • Major secondary characters first (friends, sidekicks)
  • Then important characters (people the plot or story hinges on, but aren't hanging out with the main characters)
  • Then minor characters (recurring people who play smaller roles and are seen multiple times)
  • Then walk on characters (people in one or two scenes who don't do much, but have names anyway)
  • Then any character who interacts with your protagonist or antagonist
For this exercise, let's say a "character" is anyone who's A) named, as names = importance to a reader and suggest they should be remembered, or B) someone who is shown on the page affecting the protagonist (or antagonist). For example, your hero is mugged by three thugs. There are four people in that scene, but are all of them necessary?

(More on developing secondary characters here)

Step Three: Draw lines connecting the boxes. A solid line if the character directly interacts and affects the protagonist, a dotted line if they are connected more to someone who is connected to the protagonist. For example, when your hero is mugged by three thugs, and only one speaks to him and actually interacts in a meaningful way, he gets a solid connection line. The other two thugs would get dotted lines to the first thug, because they're connected to him, but really don't affect the protagonist much.

Step Four: Draw lines between any characters who are connected to each other so you can see the relationships.

What This Should Tell You:
  • How many characters are in the book
  • Which characters directly affect your protagonist and which ones don't
  • Which characters might be good candidates to combine into one
If you had a hard time finding room for all your boxes, that's a red flag you might have too many characters. Same if you have a lot of characters who have zero connections to your protagonist, but connections to other characters in the book. Lots of people with dotted lines to one person could be ones you can combine (like those extra thugs)

Extra Tip: This could also be useful to see if a particular scene has too many characters in it, especially those hard-to-manage scenes with a group of people where everyone is chiming in about something. Who actually matters in that scene and who is just there to toss out a line?

Extra, Extra Tip: You could also do this with scenes to see which scenes move the plot and which are just duplicating what another scene is doing.

(More on combining scenes here)

What I like about this exercise is that it forces you to think about how the various characters are connected. Someone might feel like they're affecting the protagonist, but when you sit down and really look at it, they have no direct interaction with them at all. They're more connected to someone who is connected to the protagonist. That person might be a good candidate to cut, combine, or give more plot to so they do have a stronger connection (and possibly a deeper layer) to the protagonist and the story.

Sometimes a visual representation can provide more information than words on a page. And looking at our stories from a different perspective can allow us to see things we normally would have missed.


  1. I'm terrified to think of how a reader will handle the number of characters in my third book. Since it's the last part of the trilogy, I have to wrap things up, and that means giving proper attention to all of my new and recurring characters.

    I think I stopped counting after I hit 18...

    1. i dont think it counts for a trilogy if they read that far in my book they bought into your world enough so it doesn't matter. harry potter has a CRAP load of characters with names backgrounds and subplots. that's only by the third book

    2. It counts, but in a different way. It's a good thing to think about when you write a series, because you do end up with a LOT of characters, and if it's too much, you can lose your readers. I know I stopped reading a very popular series because after waiting a year for the next book to come out, I couldn't remember half of the characters. The author probably had fifty or so in the first 50 pages.

      Just make sure readers can remember who is who even if there's a long space between books.

  2. Paul, I ran into the exact same issue in Darkfall :) I suddenly had casts from three books to deal with. Hmmm...I should probably add "be careful of how many characters you'll end up with in book three" to one of my things to think about in a trilogy posts, lol.

  3. Hah! Yes, definitely.

    I suppose it helps to always keep one or two characters as your primary focus. It means the reader can budget their emotional buy-in better and the writer can avoid having to juggle too many character arcs.

  4. Paul, I found it was the secondary characters that tripped me up. The ones that were important per book, but not the main focus, so readers didn't always remember them after a year between books. By 3 they all had roles. Yikes!

  5. This is great, Janice - and I will print out to keep handy! (Somehow, having just returned from an out-of-town wedding where my son was an usher, I'm having visions of seating arrangements based on the bride and groom, and then all the interactions at the reception!) ;0)

  6. Robyn, you inspired me :)I can totally see how your mind would go to seating arrangements, lol. Hope you had a great time!

  7. Hi Janice! I'm a new reader to your blog and I just have to say it is AMAZING. The best compilation of writing advice I have found on the web so far. Your advice goes so far above and beyond the cliched usual advice... this is stuff that I wish my Creative Writing profs would teach and talk about in our workshops! You should consider teaching CRWR at the post-secondary level, I think you'd be great.
    I've read DOZENS of your articles over the last few days, so this comment is not only applicable to this one, I just thought it was about time I commented and thanked you for this excellent blog. But this post did really hit home with me as I tend towards too many characters in my writing! Thanks for your advice and even though I am not in your target age group for your novels, I will definitely be picking them up. If you write fiction half as well as you write about writing, then I'm in for a treat.

  8. Thanks, that's a great exercise, I am definitely keeping that so I can use it.
    Terrific idea!

  9. Thanks for this great post Janice! It really helps to map out the characters and their connections to each other visually! I will try this exercise with scenes too! :)

  10. Stephanie, aw, thanks so much! The blog is my way of teaching, and paying it forward for all those who helped me when I was starting out. Glad it's helping you :)

    Barmybex, Robyn got me started, lol. Just goes to show you never know where or when an idea will come from.

    Eisen, most welcome. Let me know how it works out for you :)

  11. Very useful post. My first couple of books really suffered from too many characters. Some of them really needed their own books.

  12. Thanks Anne! Mine did too. On the upside, those extra characters give us extra story ideas :)

  13. Could you use, say, three pieces of paper for a story? Such as if a character has done time travel or had unexpected memory modification, and knows people s/he shouldn't?

  14. Olvido, sure, it's your tool, use whatever works for you.

  15. My novel is a sci fi drama/war, it has 26 characters, I plan to do 4 books but... is it alright to have this many characters? 16 are protagonists and antagonists, each one with a background story. I just want to make each story powerful, without confunding the reader, what shall I do? I'm from Mexico by the way.

    1. It's always hard to say for sure without knowing the story, but my gut reaction based on your description...

      The protagonist is traditionally the person driving the story, and while you can have multiple main and important characters, 16 protagonists does sound like too many to me. Even with four books, that's 16 people trying to be the hero, and you'll likely end up with 16 different "books" in one series. Even eight protagonists and eight antagonists feels like a lot. Unless some of those characters are involved in the same plot line, that's still eight different stories in one.

      You might try looking at your series and figuring out who is the one character who is making the story happen. Who absolutely cannot be taken out or the entire story falls apart. Odds are this is your protagonist, and you'll have an antagonist opposing them. If each book focuses on a different character, then you could easily have four of each-one protagonist ad antagonist for each book in the series.

      Next, look at your other characters and figure out how they fit into the story. Are they helping the protagonist in some way or do they have full plot arcs and problems of their own that in no way overlap with the protagonist? If they have their own story separate from the other characters, they might be books of their own.

      Think of it this way. A traditional sci fi novel is 80,000 to 100,000 words. If you have eight protagonists all with their own stories, that's only 8-12,000 words per character of story. That's barely larger than a short story, so you really don't have time to develop any of those characters or their stories. If you're also showing the antagonist side, that brings it down even smaller.

      Of course, if the 26 characters are spread out over four books, and each book has a different protagonist and antagonist, but is set in the same world or connected in some way, then you might be fine. A few main characters each with their own bad guys per book would have fewer characters per book.

      Does that make sense? And help?

  16. awesome! Thanks a LOT janice... my 12 year old daughter whose starting to write a novel entitled,"fun times, sad times:doesn’t it matter?" is amazed by your tips! she now is making a perfect picture/novel thanks to your help..... thanks janice, thanks a lot..

    1. Aw, I'm so glad she's finding it helpful :)

  17. and even her sci fi/romance/comedy/action/horror/adventure 8 episode novel with over 35 child characters are even working out... with a comic, probably, and once all, thank you.. :-)

  18. I'm in the process of creating characters I have 13 right now but most of them are relatives, also the story takes place in Italy and I have never been there where do I go to research Italy.

    1. I'd start with the Italy tourism boards. Most cities have websites with information on them. You can also use Wikipedia to get ideas on other places to do research, as well as go to your local library and ask the librarians. They'll be able to point you to shelves and shelves of books about it.

      You could also try Googling "living in Italy" and see what pops up.

  19. I'm writing an zombie apocalypse story, I have 69 characters, many are small characters with no real storyline, seven being a Mr. or Mrs. character while a few I know where I want to go with; I have a direction that I think I would want to go with all of the characters some helping to push another character's story. but I know 69 characters is a lot, and I have no Idea how I could take any out or putting two together; I'm now into chapter 9 and I have already grown to liking most of the characters, what do you think I should try to do, do you think their is any acceptable way to keep all these characters without losing the audience's attention?

    1. Sorry for the late reply, I missed this one before.

      69 is a LOT to remember. I think they've done studies that show the average person can only hold 9-12 people in memory or something. It will depend on how much those characters actually matter to the story. For example, if 40 of them are people the protagonist meets for one or two pages as they're passing through a town, readers won't expect to need to remember and won't. But if there are 40 with storylines and plots and readers are required to remember them for the story to make sense, that's probably asking too much. That many characters also means none of them get any real depth, because the book can only be a certain length.

      Some characters you can call by title if they don't do anything or just appear in one or two scenes, such as "the waitress" or "the doctor." Others you can combine (which is the easiest). For example, if you have multiple characters who inspire the protagonist, maybe combine them into one person who inspires at various times when needed.