Traditional Publishing

How Many Characters?

By G. Miki Hayden
Instructor at Writer's Digest University online and private writing coach – Monday December 30, 2019

I never really thought about how many characters might be best in a novel because my characters have always had real and necessary roles, and that’s what I’ve stuck by. But recently I had a student whose novel is off to the races with 10 different third-person point of view characters and about an equal number of secondary characters. The student was struggling with whether that was optimal or whether she needed to ditch the whole project. Hey, wait, never toss a project until you’ve pondered the various implications.

And I haven’t mentioned yet another student with four first-person point of view characters, all belonging to a secret university club, and the four are about to be arrested and indicted for a murder. Will four first-person points of view work?

So, if this is your situation or even if it’s not, let’s have a look at what my above students might do to make their choices work. Your number of characters might be five or six in the entire novel, but you might still have a similar problem in that you have too many—or too few—characters, or you just don’t use them well.

What can you do to make sure all your characters are in good working order and that readers don’t become overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of them? Well, to start, don’t open with them all in a row or in a crowd squabbling with one another or doing whatever they will typically do together later on. Feed them into the story slowly—pace in the introduction of your characters. We, the readers, just arrived and we need to acclimate ourselves to the action. Help us by letting us meet one person at a time—oh, yes, generally the protagonist, but not always. After we know John or Joan, let us get to know Laurence later on once John or Joan is set in our minds.

Actually, though I put that suggestion first, because we’re talking above about the opening of the novel, the true first consideration will be what function does John or Joan serve in the novel? Is John or Joan really needed? And the same question will be applied to Laurence and to every other character you introduce whether slowly or quickly. Do you need that character, and does he or she serve a substantial purpose—and probably throughout the novel.

OK, yes, Joan is the protagonist’s best friend and John is the roommate. But wait, can we double-cast Joan as both the best friend and the roommate, thus eliminating John? Well, maybe we can and maybe we can’t because the difference in genders might have a bearing on the story… But sometimes, yes, we can double-cast a character, eliminating one. So toss that other character. And then we have nine.

Let me insert here the strong suggestion that when you’re using however many characters in your novel, whether two or 20, that you don’t head hop. That is, that you don’t present more than one point of view per scene, whether you’re using first person point of view or multiple third person points of view. Stick with one scene, one point of view, which is the contemporary standard.

With many characters—or even with only two or three—you want to make their names distinguishable. Generally, you don’t want to use the same initial letter for even two names—one per letter. Rex and Heinrich might be good for two male characters since when the readers’ eyes falls on each name, they easily know Rex from Heinrich.

But just in case that’s not obvious enough, Rex and Heinrich might need distinguishing characteristics—and that couldn’t hurt. Rex stutters and Heinrich is a germaphobe. Or each has something more subtle, such as a leading emotion. Rex is always angry and Heinrich is overly self-doubting and hates to put himself forward. But you get the idea. And maybe if we’re seeing these characters thorough the protagonist’s eyes, she thinks of each in a distinctive way—Rex, the rich guy from Florida, and Heinrich, the Oxford scholar.

Let me say, finally, that I edited two different speculative fiction novels recently with multiple characters. One had a group of male characters—all hero warriors but each had two different names—his homebody name and his name as a legionnaire. This was utterly confusing since they were all heroes, thus having the same or similar characteristics, and one couldn’t truly be distinguished from the other and certainly not when called by two different names.

By the end of the novel I gave up and saw them all as pretty much the same except for a couple of the leading characters. The mistake by the author was a big one in my view, and yes, I told her exactly what I thought, for such is my sworn duty as a line editor.

(And by the way, stop sometimes calling your character Ed Larson “Ed” and at other times “Larson.” No—too confusing.)

The second speculative fiction novel I edited had a group of women as the lead characters—they were certainly similar, yes, but worse, again, was the author’s naming convention. Because we were in an unknown world, the author chose to give the women exotic names having no relationship to any names familiar to us—strike one. And then as well, a couple of the women had names that began with the same letter—strike two. And, for strike three, the woman all had very similar emotional affect—that is, they cried at the drop of a feather… Certainly, yet again, I told the author my thoughts. The lead character was distinguishable because we got to know her for a few chapters before the others arrived, yet the rest of the lead characters were simply way too similar.  

But now at least you have some ideas to help your readers tell your cast apart, even if you’re writing your characters by the dozen (though you might try to winnow them down—and did I say don’t name the milkman at all unless he reappears throughout the novel—maybe as the narrator).

Keep questioning whether you need to use character B, C, and D. And watch those names.

About the Author

G. Miki Hayden, who sold an action-adventure trilogy this past year, has a thriller class starting even as we speak at Writer's Online Workshops from Writer's Digest at Her two writing instructionals are Writing the Mystery: A Start to Finish Guide for Both Novice and Professional and The Naked Writer: A Comprehensive Writing Style Guide . One won an award, but buy them both.