Is your head full of a cast of characters you’re longing to set forth on an epic adventure story?
Writing a story that includes many characters can add a layer of richness and detail to your story that many readers will respond well to.
It also allows your creative mind to explore a range of personalities and voices in your writing.
You need only look at grand stories such as A Song of Ice and Fire to see that a large cast of characters can both work well and attract a large readership.
If it’s done in a way that adds authenticity to your story, there’s no reason you can’t have a multi-character cast. But you might wonder: how many characters is too many?
The short answer is: no such number exists. You can include as many characters in your novel as you want to.
It’s your story, and there’s no rule book you need to follow on how to write a great story. The creative process is yours to own.
However, before you delve straight into trying to create a George R. R. Martin level of character population in your story, it might be a good idea to ask yourself if it’s really necessary to have a cast of hundreds.
Consider the following points to ensure you’re not making your story more complicated than it needs to be.
Limit point-of-view characters
Having many characters in your story usually means you will also be writing from more than one point of view, especially if there’s more than one protagonist/lead character.
This is an important storytelling technique that allows the reader to empathise with and follow the journeys of your many characters.
However, having too many POV characters can make your story unnecessarily difficult to read.
If every character, no matter their importance to the story, gets a point of view, your story can start to feel crowded and overly complicated.
Having two or three POV characters usually works well. Having more than that can not only confuse your reader but make it hard for you as a writer too.
Each point-of-view character needs a unique voice. If you’re juggling too many, you might find you run out of ideas or ways to differentiate between voices.
Space out character introductions
Don’t overwhelm your reader with too many characters at once. Not only will your story seem rushed, it will also be very confusing for your reader to take in so much information so quickly.
It can be very tempting to have all of your characters in a room at once, but just think about the information overload that would be for your reader.
While you are very familiar with each of your characters, your reader is only just getting to know them.
Think about how you feel when you walk into a very crowded room in real life. You can’t take in everyone’s names, occupations, and backstories right away.
It usually takes a while to absorb the information as you’re talking to different people. You need to ease your readers into the process of meeting your characters in a similar way.
Start with your major characters and slowly introduce your minor characters as you go. Make sure you introduce them at a point where it makes sense to your story.
As always, you need to be constantly moving the plot forward.
Keep track of your characters
As a writer, you need to know each of your characters intimately. Not only what they look like, but also their personalities, histories, interests.
It’s almost like getting to know a real person, if you do it correctly.
The more characters you have in your story, the more people you need to keep track of. If you’re not careful, you might mix up your characters’ hair colours, mannerisms or backstories.
To keep all the information straight as you write, you must have an excellent system in place. Keep files or documents on each character so you can easily look up their details.
If you get lost in your cast of characters, mixing up names, plotlines and physical appearances, consider how your reader will feel.
If you can’t keep track of it all as you write, a reader won’t be able to keep track of it as they read.
Kill your darlings
Sometimes you just have to kill your darlings.
Most writers will be familiar with this term, but in case you’re not, it means to get rid of unnecessary characters if you need to.
It’s one of a writer’s least favourite jobs, but sometimes it’s just got to happen.
Are you holding on to characters because you love them and not because they are important to your story? Are you trying to make minor characters more vital to the plot than they really are?
Have you done some amazing writing for a character you don’t even want to contemplate deleting?
Sometimes you have to kill your darlings for the good of your story. Don’t despair, though – whatever you cut out of this story might be reusable at a later date.
Or perhaps you could combine two characters into one, allowing you to keep some of that amazing dialogue or description you’ve already written.
When you’re telling a story with lots of characters, it can be tempting to repeat information from multiple perspectives. Sometimes you want to reveal multiple characters’ reactions to a particular event.
It’s important, though, that you resist this temptation.
Every sentence of your story needs to move the plot forward. The character’s journeys will need to overlap, but the way you tell each part of the journey needs to be fresh and unique.
Not only will repeating information make your novel very long, it will also make it boring to read.
Figure out which character should tell which part of the story. When you have multiple characters in a scene, choose the best point of view for the action that’s happening.
It might not be the character you imagined it would be, so experiment with writing the scene from different perspectives.
If you do frequently repeat information, maybe it’s time to look at your cast of characters and see if you can condense it a little to make the story simpler to tell.
Prioritise the main characters
Each character is in your story for a reason. However, your main characters need to be the driving force behind your story.
These are the characters your reader empathises with and wants to succeed, so they need to be the focus of your story.
If you have too many characters in your novel, it will be difficult to share the spotlight around.
It’s at this point you might realise you have too many characters in a lead role, and that some of them might need to be relegated to a supporting role (or see above about killing your darlings).
It’s also possible that some characters just don’t serve the purpose you thought they did.
If they are getting plenty of ‘screen time’ but aren’t driving the story forward, perhaps they shouldn’t be there at all.
Use dialogue tags
It’s common in novels these days to leave out dialogue tags completely much of the time.
This is because having a lot of dialogue tags can slow down the action of your story and make it monotonous for your reader.
But do you know when this rule doesn’t necessarily apply? When you’re telling a story with a lot of characters in it.
It can be incredibly confusing for your reader if you don’t identify who is talking when, especially in scenes when there are many characters present.
While you should definitely use dialogue tags sparingly and with careful consideration, don’t leave them out altogether when you have many characters interacting with each other.
While there is no rule book that tells you how many characters are too many, you need to proceed with caution.
If you’re not careful, you can overwhelm your reader, repeat information and create a confusing story where characters are underdeveloped or indistinct.
However, if you space out your character introductions, limit your point-of-view characters, use dialogue tags and prioritise your lead characters, you can create a complex story that readers will love.
As always, make sure having multiple characters is vital to your story. If you can get away with having fewer, your story could be much easier to write.
There’s no need to complicate your writing just for the fun of it. But when it comes down to it, you can write your novel any way you want to, with the number of characters that works for your story.