Monday, October 04, 2010

How many characters?

This is something I wrote elsewhere and am dragging back here, somewhat tired and shopworn, for your delectation.

How many characters in a story?

Let's say you have 90K words to play around with.  In that space, you can develop between seven and ten characters.  A dozen at the outside.

Three or four can be major actors with flaws and inconsistencies and pasts.  With POVs.  Another six or seven can fill the role of secondaries.  We see a good bit of these secondary guys.

But we end up with just these two or three cool main characters.

In all -- a dozen recognizable and developed characters. 
Not two dozen.  Not twenty.  Not even seventeen.

There's a reason movies are named 'Ocean's Eleven' or 'The Dirty Dozen', instead of Ocean's Twenty-two and The Dirty Thirty. The Guns of Navarone was a team of seven plus a villain.  How many characters perform significant action in The Great Escape?
(And that was deliberately plotted for cameos.)

If you have nothing to do some rainy weekend, you might watch these pictures and study how the screen time is allotted. It's a good lesson in handling multicharacter fiction with de-emphasized main characters.

In these movies, we do not have seventeen developed characters to keep track of. When you look carefully, it's more like eight.

How come? 

There is the Mother Cat Effect.
which I have just named.

A mother cat can count to five. This is, she's aware of five kittens in the sense that if you sneak in and take one away, she notices.  If she has six or seven kittens and you nab one, she doesn't notice.

I am not advocating the theft of kittens here. I'm trying to say that your reader has what might be called a cat-awareness of characters and this stretches to about eight or ten characters all told.

More characters than that, and they are going to just slide out of her mind and become, 'Oh. That guy who's going to blow up the hot dog stand.' 'Oh, his old girlfriend.' 'Oh, the bank manager.'

The eleventh and dozenth characters are no longer individuals. They are a moveable place in the plot. They are scenery with arms.

A writer might know and love each of their twenty or thirty people and tell them apart. If the writer was doing a sea thriller he could create two-dozen individual boats and explain this one has this sort of rigging and that one is out of Nantucket. He could give them idiosyncrasies and put memorable names on them.

But the reader, after six or eight cutters and sloops, stops building a picture. Three pages later, she couldn't match the name with the boat. He would have created something the reader doesn't 'see' and wasted his precious words and the reader's focus while doing so.

Characters are a zero sum game. After six or eight, you can add only another character by stealing reality from the ones in place.

One way we end up with excess character-age is we create a separate thread of action that does not have the POV character in it.  That action needs a whole new set of characters to run it.
We tell ourselves this is cool stuff.  Even though it happens outside the eye range of the POV characters, we must show the reader.

Might be the factory building deadly green bottles. Might be Napoleon planning the next battle.
But our MCs can't be there.

This is a job for TELL DON'T SHOW.

Feeding in information the POV character can't see is one of the technique thingums we have to conquer. (And Bloody Hard it is.) We are always trying to get this information to the reader.
But creating scenes to 'explain stuff' is almost always misguided.

The core rule that covers this is that 'scenes arise from the action of our main characters'.   Events are important because the MCs react to them.

Think about any of these thrillers with doomsday machines being built. Moonraker, True Lies, X-Men and so on.
Watch how there is always a MC, hero or villain, on screen or about to walk onscreen. We don't see the secret laboratory. We see the villain in the secret laboratory.

Look at a beautifully plot-driven book like any of Agatha Christie's.

(Count her characters, btw, in books that are deliberately plotted with a huge cast. Not twenty-two developed characters milling around. Fewer than a dozen, and those mostly stereotypes. Murder on the Orient Express. Ten Little Indians. A dozen is the outer limit.  There is a reason for this.)

Anyhow, see how the action of her books intertwines with the characters.

The body in the library does not remain isolated from the MCs. Poirot visits the library. Mrs. Marple comes to sit with the owner of the house. There is no separate thread for the excitement of that murder. As soon as humanly possible it is folded into the action of the characters. All scenery and event leads back to the hands and eyes of the MCs.

Doesn't matter how lovely the scene is, how exciting, how important . . . we have to replot to put the POV character there.

Tension doesn't happen because there's a poisonous green glowing vial on an anonymous assembly line in a mysterious factory.

Tension happens because a green glowing vial gets unpacked by the MCs twelve-year-old daughter and set on the kitchen counter.


  1. This is so true- and as a reader it can be frustrating when reading stories with a large cast of characters. If I have to flip back and forth constantly to remind myself who everyone is, I just set down the book.

  2. Look at Dickens, who might be considered a character-rich fellow.

    Oliver Twist is 150,000 words, but we still don't have a horde of characters. He tells the story with about a dozen.

    Oliver, Fagin, Nancy, Bill Sykes, Mr. Bumble, Artful Dodger, Mr. Sowerberry, Noah Claypole, Mrs. Corney/Mrs. Bumble, Monks, Mr. Brownlow, Rose Maylie.

    He's a genius at developing these characters. He could hand us another ten distinct individuals. (And he does give us quirks and individuality in the walk-on parts.) But he gives the reader only about a dozen folks to 'know'.

    When we get beyond this dozen, the supporting cast is greatly simplified. We 'see' Nancy. She's a Developed Character. We don't 'see' Bet. She's a cut-out.

    Dickens could develop both Nancy and Bet. He didn't It's because Dickens knew when to stop growing the cast.

  3. Thanks for a great post Jo! Though I can't help it, if I see kittens, I might take one...
    Thanks goodness I don't add characters willy nilly, for the sole reason that *I* couldn't keep track of them if I did! I'm even balking at the idea of giving my protagonist household servants. I can't be bothered having her order others around and live with domestic help in the confined space that is her apartment. Her sharing it with two men is enough for me to be going with!

  4. Thank you. I needed to hear this today. My cast ballooned on me last night, argh.

  5. Totally OT, but I just thought I'd let you know there's a copy of "Her Ladyship's Companion" priced at $690 (!!!) on Amazon.

    Are there any plans to re-release that book at some point?

  6. Hi Stephanie --

    I am so sorry to hear that.
    How frustrating.

    I think the whole blog posting was to say that a plethora of character may dilute the reader's commitment to the humanity of the story.
    That too many characters is sometimes cause by a plotting infelicity.
    And that what comes about by incautious plotting may best be solved by a careful replot.

  7. Hi Deniz --

    In some period apartments, the servants lived way way up on the tippy top floor in little rooms under the attic. They were thus not so much underfoot when off duty.

  8. Hi Verona St. James --

    I think that's somebody's idea of a joke.

    I have promised myself to look into getting that old Regency reprinted some way or another. I have the current manuscript to finish, (panic, panic,) and then I will think about other stuff.

    Or else change my name and go live in Calais, Maine in a 10 by 12 cabin in the woods.