Discussion: Your opinions on how many characters is 'perfect' for a book.

At the moment I am currently writing a book that–for many reasons–has began to develop into this pool of several characters than I’d wish for.

It’s one of those things that i have difficulty controlling, which is creating characters that are unique vastly different or similar to one another. But in your case, how many characters (not necessarily main characters, since we’re counting B-characters) to not make the readers dizzy.

At the moment I have about 14…in the first 5 chapters and about almost 10 are main characters, but in the five chapters i have four.

It depends on so many factors: book length, genre and subgenre, perspective(s) used, importance of supporting cast… and this isn’t even considering individual story needs.

For me, I generally stick to 3-5 main characters in a full length novel, 1-3 in a novella. I like to pair each MC with two foils where I can, one that encourages their want and one that forces them to discover their need. Some MCs can serve this role for each other too, since I like to combine characters to keep the cast as tight as possible. My antagonists almost always get a POV, and they come with their own supporting cast. But I’m always trying to avoid spreading myself too thin. Three quality characters is better than six that kind of blend together.

14 characters in the first 5 chapters… with an average of almost three new characters per chapter, that sounds like quite the balancing act. Question: How are 10 of them main characters? What genre do you write in and what’s the story about?

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Well, 10 of them are main characters and are essential to the story line but 4 of them are the main focus. When I say 10, I’m adding the antagonists to the list.

The genre is a dystopian world, with rebel groups hoping to take down the government.

Well, if that’s the case, I’d say you have four main characters, then. Supporting cast can be (indeed should be) essential to the story as well.

This is anecdotal and experiential, but something I learned in the process of getting feedback and editing one of my works is that it’s not necessarily how many characters total but how quickly they are introduced.

I would get feedback saying that readers couldn’t keep track or there were “too many” characters.

But, I tested different drafts and found that if I introduced the characters more gradually, readers accepted them.

For example, instead of introducing 12 characters and naming them all at once, there’s one scene in a location where the first four are introduced. Readers recognize them as a family unit, so collectively these four characters are easier to remember as parents and children in a family.

Then they go to a second location where a number of other characters are mentioned to be, but not necessarily named and described.

In this location, gradually four other characters are introduced with names and descriptions as extended family members. And most of these have speaking lines.

Later, some family members leave to a third location and meet 4 other characters (75% of them unrelated).

12 characters total.

But their association with a group helps readers collectively identify that a fictional group/family exists even if they aren’t entirely clear on who each character is, yet.

And introducing them in different scenes/locations within a chapter helps to associate them into sub-groups or categories which also helps readers remember. Like: Oh, the guy they met in that place is back."

It does depend on a lot of different factors, such as what @MiloMaia said. But it also depends on how confusing you make it out to be. You can have a story with a lot of characters and you can do it well as I’ve seen it done before. For example, in the Hunger Games trilogy or even for Harry Potter.

But if there are characters that aren’t mentioned frequently or occasionally or randomly pop up after like ten chapters, there might be some readers who might scratch their heads and be like, “Who is this person?” Because your readers might forget or might be confused with other characters. It can be hard to keep track of.

Another issue is character development. You need to make sure that you develop each and every character. People like getting immersed into the world and relating to the characters. I mean, with no characters, you don’t have a story. And if your characters aren’t developed, they’ll come out as bland and people will hate it.

I once saw a movie that showed a bunch of different characters in various situations throughout the movie. The storyline was awesome, but the characters weren’t developed. It was like the creators were more focused on the storyline than the characters. So although we had a cool plot to watch unfold, we couldn’t get connected to the characters at all because nothing happened or was shown to allow us to feel for them. If they ended up dying, no one would care. If they fell in love, we would shrug it off. If they got their heart broken, we would look at the screen with a straight face. When it comes to creating a story, you have to balance storytelling and character development.

If you already have these two down, you’re good to go!

My new novel is featuring ten main characters that are all trapped up in the mountains, so you get to see them frequently and I’m working on developing them as characters. :wink:

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I’d keep to two or three for a short story and for the longer ones, depending on the genre and the target audience, the number of characters will differ. There isn’t a set way you can do it since things will be a bit different for every individual audience.

For example, in those cliché Teen Fiction books you find on wattpad, there are usually like 2 main MCs who get together in the end, maybe 3 or 4 other generally main characters they are either friends with or are rivals with, 2 or 3 people who show up now and then to turn the tables, and the rest are a general blurred crowd to set the scenes. How the characters are introduced will have to depend on how you plot the story — you can’t have the other way around where you plot the story based on how the audience prefer how many characters to introduce in each chapter, although of course, you also have to keep that in mind.

In high fantasy, they tend to be written in multiple povs of groups. The target audience is also generally adult who can are able to keep track of stuff so that’s also possible. I’ve seen dozens of main characters being used in some of the books in this genre but it’s mostly only in those really thick books that are in a series with three books or more.

Personally, I think you should be the one to determine what is ‘perfect’ by reading your own work and revising because there is probably bound to be other people who think the same way as you — this way, you’re also more likely to attract audience who are similar to you and it might be more satisfying for you to write for them.

Realistically, the number of character’s perfect for a book is dependent on the writer and how capable they are of giving each of them their own personality and voice and how well the breathe life into them.

I’ve read books that have very few characters, but without depth in each of them, they feel sort of pointless. Often times I’ve noticed that a lot of side characters are they to jump into a chapter and talk about how great, funny, pretty, smart, etc the MC is.

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I would recommend introducing as few characters as possible in the first few chapters. Those are the chapters the reader has to grow connected, and hopping around from character to character makes that very difficult.

Ugh, cheerleader side characters are the worst. They can make me dislike any protagonist.

Like, I’m told that the MC is this incredible chick, but she is usually kind of a bully who gets praised for it.

Yeah, you called the girl who likes your man a ‘whore’ in front of an entire class. You’re so awesome! You’re not an asshole at all!

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On average, I’d say 6-7 is decent for a book. 1-2 main characters and the rest are reoccurring, supporting characters. More epic novels or novels with multiple POVS, can get away with more in the 10+ range.

Now I wanna count… For my one story, I have two main characters, and seven other characters who show up at some point with some relevance = 9 total. This story is likely going be 45-50K words and around 15 chapters.

For another story I have planned, I have over ten characters planned so far, with two main characters. It’s bound to be anywhere from 75K-90K and 25+ chapters.

As a case in point, there is this Manga called Wulfsmund, where each MC dies after each chapter. Though the main guy (the corrupt guy ordering people’s executions) is the real main character, in practice this makes a work for hundreds of characters.

Long running manga series comes to mind in particular. So as mentioned earlier, it really depends on the genre.

Blanket rules about all genres never helped anybody.

I once read an essay on relationships and networks between people. The author was of the opinion that 5 main characters was the most that people could cope with. You see, with 5 characters there are 120 possible ways they can interact (5! for you mathematically minded people), while 6 characters gives 720 possible interactions - which is more than most people can keep track of in their heads.

I’m not sure how accurate the author’s theory was, but I reckon you do not want to have too many important characters.

What my guess is it depends entirely on how the book is structured. Yea, you definitely don’t want 6 character over the course of a 30 TV episode.

But over the course of say, 6 seasons, having more than about twenty characters is kind of … inevitable.

@SarahWeaver6 20 characters over a 6 season show is not that many. It may be daunting to a newcomer, but for those who have been following things for a while most of the relationships will have settled by then.

Besides, not all of those characters will turn up at once, even late on in a series.

Yea my thoughts exactly.

I guess what’s more important is knowing the length of story you’re going to tell, and determine the amount of characters based on that.

Unless you’re writing a middle grade (and even then only TV these days) something that’s real long, characters die off, have kids, lose their super powers, or something else that makes them out of commission. So you’d need a MC to fill in the gap.

But in like one episode, I’m already feeling a smidgen overwhelmed by six characters, incidentally in Ladybug And Cat Noir.

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@SarahWeaver6 Cut your cloth to suit - always good advice!

As many as you need, but slow down the introductions if you can. Usually the human memory short term can only clock 3-4 new items at a time. So if you follow that name only 3-4 new named characters per chapter, maybe with a break in between. You can also cheat it by pairing characters together, but this is like a very, very close to the line cheat.

Unnamed characters people won’t really take note of, so you can have as many of the NPCs as you want, but just make sure it’s relevant to the plot.

Narrating characters as in talking to the reader, also covered, but limited to 4 if possible. If you want to go over that have a good justification for why.