Thursday, September 10, 2009

Crowds of Characters

How many is too many? Not children or pets; characters. Main characters. When does a reader just get fed up and put the book down because there are just too many people to keep track of? By the way, I hate those "Lists of Characters" that are at the beginning of some books. To me that's a huge indication that I'm going to have to keep flipping back to it as I try to keep everyone straight.

How many main characters is a constant dilemma for me since my book(s) have multiple plots and motives. Multiple plots breed multiple characters. I've tried to categorize them into 'serious contenders' (for being the murderer) 'possible contenders' or 'only if it was really weird' contenders. But still....

Keeping these characters and their motives separate and distinct isn't a problem for me, since I've been living with these guys forever. But what about my poor reader? And then there are the secondary characters and the characters mentioned but never seen. I've been counting characters in other mysteries and some have more and some have less. No help there. My dilemma is I can't get rid of any of them - the plots are too interwoven and I'm writing the book from the POV of six of them and these six interact with everyone else. My detective is one of the six and the first character we are introduced to (this is the Venetian who can't paint that I've mentioned before). I didn't plan to write it this way, it just happened. These six voices can tell the story. I can't make it five. Or am I supposed to? I certainly cannot make it one. But that's a completely different discussion...

Do you have a magic formula for figuring out how many main characters you need? Is there a magic number? Or does it just depend on your plot? (which is my way of thinking).


  1. It needs to be simple. I prefer one main character or maybe a hero and heroine if it's a romance. Then maybe a secondary character or two for each (friend, co-worker, family member, etc.). I just don't fill my books with a lot of unnecessary people.

  2. I don't know a magical number, but I do know I get lost if there are too many. I prefer one or two POV characters. If you have a lot of characters, please make their names distinct. Too similar & I, for sure, will mix them up. Thrillers tend to have a ton of characters. They either have to be compelling enough for me to slog through all the characters or I'll put them down and go on to another book.

    Straight From Hel

  3. I've read a few books by authors that were successful at carrying multiple POV's off. Give the reader more than a name and a face to hold on to. Physical attributes or disabilities, quirky habits, bizarre histories, that kind of thing. In other words, make these characters as irresistibly interesting as your plot. Good luck! Sounds like a good story.

  4. Andre Dubus III had something like 7 POVs in Garden of Last Days (and he originally started w/ 12, I think!).

    My current ms features a protagonist, her best friend, her co-manager, ex-boyfriend, and about 6 - 8 other characters either featured as "the Originals" or "the Regulars" (all w/ names), although all have names. The protag also keeps a blog, and all the commenters have catchy names as well. There's a lot of cafe conversation going on, so we basically have to include a lot of dialogue attribution to keep track. (It's almost like our forum conversations.)

    Sounds confusing here, I'll bet. But each of these characters are part of the story in one form or another. If they serve a purpose, then the character belongs. I would think that multiple characters for a mystery is key in order to keep the reader guessing Who Done It.


  5. Yeah, so I've gotta proofread better before I post (I refer to my parenthetical phrase that says the same thing as the sentence)...

    Forgive me -- it's been a long day, and I still have one class to go.

  6. Well, the fewer the better, I’d guess. But, as many as you need. How’s that for a non-answer. I like the way you’ve categorized them. Do you spend an equal amount of time with them all? A book that might be helpful I’m currently reading is The Power of Point of View, by Alicia Rasley. Very readable and somewhat unconventional…she says she hates POV rules and encourages readers to think of POV as a tool, rather than a set of Must Dos. Anyway, if you can find that book locally, flip through it, you might find a tip or two. But, she does say something like as few as possible. You’ll get it right. Not to worry.

    Best Regards, Galen
    Imagineering Fiction Blog

  7. All duly noted, and you're right, Elisa. You've got to have more characters in a mystery so that the evil-doer isn't too obvious.

    Wish I could write a different genre so I'd have fewer plots...ah well, maybe some other time.

    And Galen, I shall look for the book, although it might depress me. Probably will. Ah well again.

  8. Oh, good blog!
    My number depends on plot. I do find it hard to keep straight who is who in some historical novels. When I see a list at the front, or family tree, it sort of scares me off.

  9. I don't think there's a magic number of characters. It changes with each book and also the skill of the writer.

    I'm sure you'll do just fine with what you've got and, frankly, I would think mysteries need more characters so you have more choices for culprits.

    Sometimes I tend to put in too few characters, so I guess my problem is a little different. But in any case, follow your instincts. If you didn't plan to write it this way and it just happened, then there may be a reason for that.


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