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It seems to me there is a relative limit for commercial fiction regarding the number of named characters. This makes sense, of course. Readers get confused; lots of people aren't good with names.

Fantasy novels, or other fiction with an adventuring party, might have 6-10 protagonists, but the antagonists are frequently unnamed squash victims.

Series, and epics cut into trilogies, might build up characters over time. But there are a lot of pages to fill, and the reader will have invested dozens of hours.

So I'm curious if anyone knows of any "behavioral science" on the subject, or if you just want to express an opinion.

Thus, perhaps something like Fifteen named characters per 100,000 words ...

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    Just to give a sense of perspective, The Wheel of Time series has over 1,800 named characters with a total word-count of over 4,300,000. So that's about 1 character per 2,400 words. – Yehuda Shapira Jan 27 '16 at 9:09
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    Indeed. Although I feel it is an extreme example, it does have a solid fan base. However, I personally became frustrated midway through the second book and didn't get much further. – Stu W Jan 27 '16 at 12:45
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If there is a cognitive limit on the number of characters in a book, I suspect that the limit is on the author's side, rather than the readers'. As long as your characters are distinct, memorable, and important to the story, you should go ahead and use them.

If you want an example of a series with an unusually high amount of named characters, I would recommend the Malazan Book of the Fallen. It contains many characters, and that series still has a devoted following. Take a look at the glossary in Gardens of the Moon - the book's nine sequels and spin-offs are not shy about introducing even more characters than the original.

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  • That's right. There are a couple of others with glossaries in them now that you mention it. – Stu W Jan 21 '16 at 23:12
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    I suspect a reader will have more difficulty keeping track of characters than a writer. To the writer, this book is his life for a period of many months, maybe years. He thinks about it constantly, writes and rewrites, etc. To the reader, it is probably a few days worth of entertainment. He is not going to devote the intellectual resources to it that the writer did. Thus, I think writers often don't realize that the number of characters is getting out of hand. – Jay Jan 22 '16 at 8:24
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    This is a really insightful answer, I'd never actually considered a name limit based on the writer's preference rather than the reader's. Adding new characters to fulfill a single purpose is very deus ex machina, which is a sign of bad writing. It's then the writer's issue to introduce unique, memorable and interesting characters that contribute to the story significantly that allows the reader to be able to distinguish and remember them. – Mike.C.Ford Jan 22 '16 at 9:54

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