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As I already mentioned in my previous question, I'm writing a novel with personages both that I created and some already created by others (well, I wrote that when I was younger and now I just digitalize it). There are de facto two storylines.

  1. Party of characters from various universes, which is interrupted by enemies.
  2. Story of bunch of kids attending that party and which solve problem in 1.

My question is about the second storyline.

Now I'm thinking about reducing the number of characters (now I have 9 main characters, not including characters from 1).

But on the other hand, almost everyone brings something special to the story and also there is a moment, where a group of kids plays a football/soccer match against enemies to escape from kidnapping and for that a team is needed.

What would you recommend?


Here I will describe the main characters (names were changed):

Jack - Leader of group. He is able to solve every problem and has practical skills.

Hans - Sometimes he says or does something very silly, but in other cases he invents genial solutions. Lover of statistics.

Lily - Very lively girl. Main source of fun.

Millie - Very shy girl. Speaks rarely and fears from joining something. Together with Lily she makes blonde-brunette BFF duo.

In story, something strange happens and in some moments Lily behaves as Millie and Millie behaves as Lily. This leads to both jokes and problems.

David - Lively younger brother of Millie. Has silly ideas - f.ex. he wants to win over car in race. Loves sports.

Jürgen - Guy with not stable attitude.

Kiara - Younger sister of Hans. Lively.

Vanessa - Older sister of Jack.

Martin - Also loves sports like David.

  • Tux, is your novel aimed for the young adult (ages 13-18) or middle-grade (ages 8-12) market? I'd like to tag it correctly and those are two tags that we'd like to be sure get used each time they fit. Thanks. – Cyn Mar 4 at 19:44
  • Cyn, main characters are about 13-14 years old. So young adult is correct. – Tux Mar 4 at 20:09
  • My question is about the age of the reader, not the characters (though they often match). Are you writing a book for adults (or tweens) with teen characters? Or are you writing a book for teens that's also about teens? – Cyn Mar 4 at 20:14
  • Age of the reader should be 12+ I guess. Theere are some details which would notsmall kinder understand. – Tux Mar 4 at 20:21
5

I have 107 characters.

In a single-book, standard length, middle-grade novel. There are a small handful of auxiliary characters too.

Obviously, they're not all main characters. I'm not sure how many of those I have because it depends where you put the lines. I have one girl who is the main character, a secondary viewpoint character, and 3 more kids I could argue are main characters. So 5. Then there are several other important kid characters and a couple adult ones.

Thing is, this isn't the same as saying "main characters." They aren't all main. When people talk about the main character of a book, it's more narrow than the main character of a TV show, which is basically everyone who pops up in the opening credits (something that can change season to season). There's not really a strict definition. So if it makes you feel better to call most of them something else, do it.

You have 9 central characters. Of them, probably 1 or 2 are primary. If not, then you have an ensemble cast, and that's okay too. If they're a team, make them a team.

The ideal number of "main characters" for your book is 9. Why? Because that's how many central characters you have. If you change that, then your ideal number changes.

Ask yourself:

  • Do you have the space to tell the stories of the main characters and flesh them out into full people the reader can identify with?
  • Is it important that the reader remember specific characters? (Those are the ones you want to prioritize)

If you have the right number of characters to tell your story and you're able to show each one as a full person (which can be very brief), you're good.

  • Is it important that the reader remember specific characters? - To be honest, crucial for the story are first 4-5 characters from my list, these ones should be remembered, rest is just because they exist in reality (IRL is inspiration) and to build a team in football. – Tux Mar 4 at 19:59
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    @Tux BINGO! You just answered your question. You have 4 or 5 main characters. The rest are secondary characters. Keep them but focus on the main ones. – Cyn Mar 4 at 20:03
  • Main character is basically everyone who pops up in the opening credits - in my case there would be whole bunch. But on the other side, crucial in plot is kinda exchange of Lily and Millie (they start to behave the way as the other girl usually does, see my edit in question) and genial idea of Hans and Jack. ¨ – Tux Mar 4 at 20:07
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    @Tux It's not perfect. After all, when the Emmys roll around, some of the actors in the opening credits qualify for best actor/actress and some only for supporting actor/actress (which is often based on things the audience wouldn't agree with). In your case, go with the characters you're seeing as more vital. Flesh them out more. If other characters scream at you to include them, do it, if it works for your story. – Cyn Mar 4 at 20:12
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    I've felt dazzled when I read "I have 107 characters" – Liquid Mar 5 at 9:39
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The problem with a lot of characters is a result of something we call in mathematics "combinatorial explosion".

Eventually, if they are MAIN characters, the reader expects they will all get together at some point, and then there are N*(N-1)/2 possible unique pairings of the characters. With 9, that means 9*8/2 or 36 possible pairings of the two. That is 36 possible conversations, interactions, dialogues, partnerships, etc.

It is too many for readers to keep track of, your story probably does not require them, and it demands 9 different personalities or abilities that are also a lot for the reader to keep track of.

Most professional writers recommend keeping your crew to no more than 5, (10 possible pairings). In psychology studies for marketing, we find people have difficulty keeping track of more than 7 brands, even of products they use often. Of course there are aficionados out there, people that can name 50 brands of cars or types of guns or concert musicians -- But we are talking about average readers being exposed to new characters, not outliers with eidetic memories.

I think you have too many characters to follow, and that has the potential to make your story seem shallow, and some characters contrived just to be the deus ex machina that solves a particular plot problem. i.e. a character like Millie that nobody pays much attention to, until they happen to need her skill, and after that nobody pays much attention to her. She's just a tool in the shed until she's needed, then back to the shed, because you say she's very shy and doesn't speak or join anything.

I'd leave four out, and find more creative ways for the remaining five to solve the problems, or just avoid writing problems the remaining five wouldn't be able to solve.

  • Agree with mathematical answer (character Hans approves this too). Seems I should reduce number to 4-5 as I expected. But on the other side: 1. How to solve problem with football match? 2. Interaction between Lily and Millie (and exchanging their personalities, see my edited question) is one of the main part of story, so paradoxically Millie is more important than more extrovert people. – Tux Mar 4 at 20:19
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    @Tux sports matches, battles, parties, and other such gatherings are handled with "extras", characters that are NOT well-developed or main characters at all. They appear in one or two scenes, they may get a line or two and a main character may mention them or recall something of their background, but the reader doesn't know the extra that well. IRL most people can remember well over a hundred people in their lives, with some details about them. So can your main characters. You give others personality traits through your MCs, what they recall and tell their friends (other MCs) about them. – Amadeus Mar 4 at 20:26
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In general, I would go with the minimum number of main characters you need. As a reader, it's difficult and distancing for me to keep track of many characters, and hard for me to care. I'm willing to go to the effort, but only if the writer has made it worth my while.

So, if you can combine some characters, or give a minor character's role or function to a major character, do it. (Main characters are ones who appear consistently throughout the work, or have a decisive role in a major section. They have a personal relationship and frequent interactions with the protagonist. They have the majority of the dialog. A minor character is one who doesn't have any of that.) If you're on the fence about a character, err on the side of taking them out. But if you need 9 main characters, you need 9 main characters. Just make them 9 people worth the effort of getting to know.

For me, personally, as a reader, if you want me to care about a large cast of characters, it helps to contextualize them --that is, make them main characters, but in defined settings or sections of the book. In the aggregate, there are many main characters, but no more than a few "onstage" at a time .

  • How to make difference between main and secondary characters? For example write dialogs and qualities for just main ones and other ones will appear during football match? – Tux Mar 4 at 20:12
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    @Tux Edited to address. – Chris Sunami Mar 4 at 20:29
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Super Sentai (better known as Power Rangers in the West, though not the same show) recently had a season which started with 9 core members of the team, and ballooned to 12 by show's end (Rangers mind you, we're not talking about secondary). They got away with it by making several unique elements. First, every member was very different to the degree that each of the Ranger suits had several non-standard designs for the season... only the Red Ranger was actually considered a standard uniform.

Next, the various episode employed one of two formats: 5 on 4 off (the off number would rise as the cast did) where five of the heroes were sent on the mission while the remaining cast were given a B-plot at best. This dove tails further as some were given side stories that doubled as a C plot and would lead into other episodes.

The other option was the all hands missions, where the entire team was broken into smaller units of threes and fours to engage in one part of a mission (A Team fights the mooks of the season and frees the civillians, B team engages with the monster of the week or the recurring general, and C team would fight the giant monsters/mooks).

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