I am plotting out a longish story, which would have the following number of characters:

Main/ reasonably significant characters: Nine

Characters still vital for the story to work:Thirteen

Side characters, named, with a little detail because they are colleagues/relatives of the character whose POV is in use: Nineteen

Is this too many? Only the Nine+Thirteen characters are fully developed, but I'm concerned that upon reading the names of other characters a reader might get bogged down, especially if I give them the odd detail. I'm trying to create a lifelike situation where we generally all have multiple people on our peripheries.

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    Not an answer by a long shot, but the way you categorize your characters feels weird to me. You've got nine "main / reasonably significant characters", and another 13 that are "vital for the story to work". If they are vital, doesn't that imply that they are at least reasonably significant? – a CVn Jul 17 at 17:17
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    @Michael Kjörling I could have been clearer, apologies. These thirteen have much less significance as characters, but still serve the plot in some way so I would be reluctant to dispense with them as they have a function. "Reasonably signficant" should probably have been phrased as "significant." – Jilli Jul 17 at 20:40
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    While not a book, Girls und Panzer has loads and loads of characters since it's military tanks and each tank has a crew. In the end, I still remember every character on the Oarai Academy division and most of the rival teams as well. Each character has their own personalities, likes, dislikes, and traits. The trick is making a Cast of Snowflakes. – Kayot Jul 18 at 1:03
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    Recall that Infinity War had 76 main characters. – DonielF Jul 18 at 13:48
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    @DonielF Carried over from movies released over a span of a decade, so you're really expected to know who they are before the movie even starts. It would have been an entirely different situation if all of them had been introduced in the one movie. Infinity War is also a visual medium, which usually helps with keeping track of people, because even if you don't remember their names you remember what they look like (and you can always see what they look like, but a book doesn't keep telling you what characters look like). – Anthony Grist Jul 19 at 15:37

10 Answers 10

up vote 30 down vote accepted

Unless you are writing a screenplay or stage drama the specific number of primary and secondary characters (ie: speaking roles) doesn't matter. There are no budgetary concerns from too many characters.

If you say the characters are necessary then they are necessary. Otherwise you must change your story, skip scenes, or combine characters. If these characters serve a logical role in their scenes, and the scenes are logical in progression, the readers won't be confused by their presence.

Just so long as they are not all in the same scene at once while the reader needs to recall specifics about their backstories by name, you should be fine.

As a reader, I very much dislike large casts of characters, I lose patience and the ability to tell them apart quite quickly. However, a lot of it depends on how they are deployed. If your main character travels a lot, for instance, he or she might naturally encounter quite a lot of different people, who, however, would only appear a few at a time, and thus be easily distinguishable.

In general, the rule I would recommend is this: If they are easy to tell apart and memorable, keep them in. If they are easily confused with each other, combine them. If they are forgettable, drop them.

The biggest red flag in your question for me is "trying to create a lifelike situation." Fiction can simulate and imitate life, but it is never truly lifelike, and we'd lose patience with it if it were. It's a little slice of life at best, and we rely on the writer to drop the boring stuff, and highlight the parts that are of greatest interest.

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    Second paragraph is gold. I would only add, instead of combining two characters, one can sometimes have a double-character (there's a proper term for it, not sure what it is). Consider Harry Potter: Crabbe&Goyle are de facto one character - they fulfil the same role, are completely interchangeable, and (this is important,) they are always together. But having two of them does serve a function. Same fro Fred&George. – Galastel Jul 17 at 20:39
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    Thanks I think the lifelike situation memo is a good one that I hadn't fully considered. @Galastel's suggestion is interesting, arguably I am employing that with most of the side characters, so that may be in my favour numbers-wise. – Jilli Jul 17 at 20:53

Consider, for example, The Lord of the Rings: you've got the Fellowship (nine characters), you've got Bilbo, Elrond, Galadriel, Theoden, Eomer, Eowyn, Denethor, Faramir, Sauron, Saruman, and several more all vital for the story to work, you've got a lot more named side characters.
There are other examples. Song of Ice and Fire, for instance. So in terms of sheer numbers, you're fine.

However, your concern is not unwarranted: with so many characters, you do need to take steps so your readers don't start mixing them all up.

How do you do that? First, character's names need to be sufficiently different. Readers often complain about Sauron and Saruman being two bad guys with confusingly similar names.

Second, don't dump all the characters at once on the reader. Introduce them a few at a time, let the reader get to know each - who they are, what's their relation to the MC / the plot.

  • I probably posed the question because especially with fantasy books I find big casts harder to keep track of. I think your LotR example proved that it can be done, but that it can also lose some readers even if done well. Thanks! – Jilli Jul 17 at 20:55
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    I stopped reading Song of Ice and Fire because I lost track of some major characters between book one and book two. Since this was a dark work and the characters darker, I name it among the two series I dropped in my entire life. And I really like the author's other works, which is why I forced myself to read the second volume before dropping it. – NomadMaker Jul 18 at 0:19
  • but lord of the rings is a large book, with space for them all to come and go. This has to be allowed for. All of these people in a short novel would be crazy. – WendyG Jul 18 at 9:38
  • @WendyG good point - a shorter story doesn't have room for lots and lots of characters. But the OP did say "longish story". – Galastel Jul 18 at 10:24
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    @NomadMaker Mmm, Song of Ice and Fire has another thing working against it: you have to remember the characters not only while you're reading a single book, but also five years later, when the next one comes out. And sometimes a character isn't mentioned for three books, only to reappear in the fourth. In such cases some sort of reminder is very much advisable. – Galastel Jul 18 at 10:28

As other answers have suggested a large character count is ok, if you manage them correctly.

Building on the Tolkien idea in Galastel's answer I want to add that The Silmarillion has an unbelievable character count (well more than 100 according to the Wiki) that has indeed driven away some people while at the same time being a successful book. According to the reviews on Amazon readers do have problems with that kind of number, but many found a good glossary, family trees, maps or eBook technologies to be immensely helpful (see for example [1, 3rd paragraph], [2, section c.], [3], [4], [5], [6], ...).

What one can take away from this example is that you can help the reader. You can do something like the appendix as in the Silmarillion example but I don't think that's all. Here are some brainstorming ideas (including some of the above):

  • Glossaries.
  • Family Trees. Or other graphical representations of relationships.
  • Maps. Where are characters moving? If regions are controlled by anyone of significance, put that on the map. You could connect characters who don't have too move much with landmarks.
  • Mind the scope. It's hard to remember some character including related facts when it hasn't been mentioned for 500 pages at all. It doesn't hurt to offer a sentence with a small hint what kind of character you are talking about or what that character did when it was first mentioned. Maybe it's not only the reader who might have trouble remembering or is caught off guard, but also the character itself that is meeting another character? It seems to me that this would fit quite well with your "lifelike situation" approach.
  • Names. See Galastel's answer. (Exceptions apply. Naming "double characters" similarly or using the same naming scheme for characters from the same family or region or culture makes sense and actually helps with putting them in the right place.)

In summary: With enough help and thought, almost any character count works.

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    Naming conventions help (making sure you don't have two characters who's name starts with the same letter for example). I always got Saruman and Sauron mixed up as a kid! – Liath Jul 18 at 8:22
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    @Liath While "one character per starting letter" is a good rule of thumb, it's a bit more complicated than that. Jerry, Harry and Gary start with different letters, but could still be easily confused. Susan, Sally and Stephanie, on the other hand, all start with the same letter but can be easily kept apart. YMMV, of course. – Llewellyn Jul 18 at 20:18

The number of characters in a novel is probably not a number you can fix. The number of characters in a scene, and in an arc, however, can be significant.

Essentially, each character in a scene should create tension in the scene or arc, should shape the way the scene or arc unfolds. The basic test here is, how would this scene be different is this character were not present? There is obviously no fixed number for this, but there is also obviously a point where adding one more character is not going to add tension to the scene. Even if that new character is in tension, their presence is almost certainly going to take other characters out of tension. Any character that is not adding tension to the scene is adding distraction and should be removed.

The other thing to remember here is that character does not equal person. From the beginning of drama, we have had the concept of the chorus. The chorus may be many person strong, but they speak with one voice. If they add tension to the scene, they do so as a unit. For dramatic purposes, therefore, the chorus is a single character. This does not mean that they could be replaced by a single person; it means that the mob, the people, society, acting in unison act differently from the way individuals act, and thus the chorus becomes a different kind of character, one that acts in a different way and thus creates tension in a different way. The dwarves in the Hobbit are a good example of the chorus.

So the question you should be asking is not what is the right number, but rather, is each of my characters in tension in the majority of scenes that the appear in. If not, they are superfluous and are weighing the story down. Keeping a large number of characters in tension is obviously much more difficult than keeping on a few in tension, but this suggest that the upper limit is determined more by your skill as a writer than by any limit on the reader's tolerance.

  • +1 Another great dive below the surface of a question to the underlying structure aspects. I really appreciate how your answers give me things I feel I can put to immediate use. – Chris Sunami Jul 20 at 15:06

It depends a lot on how the characters are introduced and managed. As long as the reader can keep track of which character is which, then it should be okay. But keep in mind that readers will not be as familiar with the characters as you the author are, so make sure that you are compensating for this.

Basically, the more effectively you manage your characters, the more characters you can introduce without confusing the reader. TV Tropes has a nice list of tips for effectively managing a large cast of characters. See also Loads and Loads of Characters. In summary:

  1. "Cast of Snowflakes": Make the characters look distinct. This is tip is more for the visual medium than the written medium, but it's still nice to keep in mind.
  2. "One Steve Limit": Try to avoid giving characters the same or even similar-sounding names.
  3. Give characters unique quirks, hobbies, and twitches: It usually takes me a while to learn names. Giving characters unique traits makes it easier to remember which character is which, even if I don't remember their names.
  4. Group characters into "Cast Herds": In general, grouping related things is helpful for memorization.
  5. Give your reader clues as to whose POV/scene this is: Redundancy is good!
  6. If you have a large cast list, include the list in your work.
  7. If all else fails, feel free to hang a lampshade.

Another key point that I would like to add: I think it's very important to avoid infodumping all of the names on the reader all at once. They won't retain any of it. Instead, it's a good idea to introduce names gradually and carefully. And make sure to give the readers multiple chances to learn the names.

Typically, when someone gets to know another, it usually takes them a while to remember the new name. Usually they would remember them using some distinctive trait such as "spikey hair" or "glasses guy". Only a while after that would they retain the first name. And only a long time after that would they retain the family name. If at all. Of course, if the relationship is more formal, such as student-teacher, it would typically be the other way around: They'd learn the family name first, and then only much later learn the given name.

In any case, when using new characters, keep in mind that the readers will be most likely remembering them using only distinctive traits for the first little while.

I'm going to point out that the named casts in Peter F Hamilton's works often top the 30 character mark. Having said that those works are huge, don't commit to more characterisation work than you can actually accomplish, if you can't actually flesh out characters enough for them to do their job, without overwhelming the story, there's not a lot of point having them filling the roster. This is an issue not only of writing material for the characters but also of fitting that material into the story without the whole piece turning into a series of character introductions between minor incidents that don't feel fleshed out because of their relatively small size compared to the mass of character detail.

In summary depending how long your piece is balancing that many characters might be awkward but there's no hard-and-fast rule as to how many, or few, characters work in a piece.

  • That's a good warning to bear in mind, and I can think of a few places where some characters could be dialled back for the sake of the overall story. Thanks! – Jilli Jul 17 at 20:57

It depends

If you're writing a short story, then nine is too many main characters. Nine is possibly too many characters period, depending on the length of the story.

The number of main characters in your story increases the complexity of the story exponentially, as you have to deal with all of the characters and all of their interactions with each other. The more main characters you have, the harder it is to balance them in an engaging story.

Try to identify the problems you've seen in other large cast stories

There are many excellent stories featuring large casts, but none of them are perfect. Figure out what they do that works well, and what they do that works poorly.

I also recommend the episode of the Writing Excuses Podcast on writing Ensemble stories. It's only half an hour long, but there are lots of good thoughts in it about how to make a large cast work.

This isn't unreasonable. To give you an idea of a long cast list in a novel, take a look at the Harry Potter series. There are a ton of characters of various import to the narrative. Jim Dale, who recorded the U.S. audio books of the series, holds the Guinness Book Record for most voiced characters in a single audio book (134 in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) and then proceed to break his own record when he recorded 146 voices for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Now, not all characters are equal, and Jim did record unique voices for such characters as The Ticket Taking Witch at the Quidditch World Cup... and that's literally everything we know about her. There is also probably the narrator voice, who was very close but still distinct from Harry Potter's speaking voice.

Wikipedia states that their are 8 main characters in Harry Potter (each getting a dedicated page). Supporting characters include Ginny (dedicated page) plus four additional pages classifying supporting characters by their associations (Hogwarts Staff, Order of the Phoenix Members, Dumbledore's Army members, and Death Eaters members).

Many highly-popular shounen manga have dozens of characters, and it seems to work well. Examples are Dragon Ball, Slam Dunk, One Piece. Characters are introduced one by one. Some are developed slowly, some get a background story, most (except MCs) disappear after a while, to leave "screen time" to other characters. But then reappear later, and some keep appearing.

Update: Seeing @ahiijny's answer's point about names, one thing I think is different in manga (and Japanese works in general) is that names are used much more than in English, and this works well for reminding the reader/watcher. [I attribute this more to the Japanese language than to technique/device. E.g. in Japanese "what do you think?" would (roughly) be "what does X-san think?"]

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