How Many Characters?

In a recent post to an online editors’ group, one editor noted that she was only halfway through a mystery novel she was critiquing, there were already 30 named characters, and the author had just added 4 more. How many is too many? she asked.

Another editor recalled working on a novel that introduced 30 named characters in the first chapter.

dog coming down hill

Travvy, on whom Wolfie is based

Hmm, I thought, and went off to count the number of named characters in Wolfie, my novel in progress. Maybe I had too many?

Since midway through the first draft I’ve been keeping a list of characters, mainly so I can keep track of names, siblings, ages, birthdays, anniversary dates, and what they drive. So it wasn’t hard to  come up with a tally of 56 humans and 3 dogs. (One of the latter is currently the title character. He’s safe.)

Is 56 (or 59) too many characters for a novel that in this almost-complete third draft is about 101K words long? Probably 10 or 12 of those named characters are the relatives or friends of more important characters. They’re mentioned in passing or show up in one scene. I would not expect readers to remember their names on a pop quiz.

So how many significant named characters were there? I counted again: 14 or 15. These characters all play important roles in moving the plot and subplots forward. Their choices make a difference. They’re the ones I’ve been getting to know better and better with each draft. When the plot comes to a fork in the road, they’re the ones I turn to to find out what happens next.

Ask me what Wolfie is about and I’ll respond with something like “the rescue of a dog, the rescue of a girl, and how they rescue each other.” From the very beginning I’ve had three characters: the dog (Wolfie), the girl (Glory, who’s in sixth grade), and, since both of them need another rescuer, Shannon (a 50-something woman who lives up the road from Glory).

Shannon is a protagonist in my first novel, The Mud of the Place, so she came with a supporting cast, four of whom play significant roles in Wolfie. My next question was “What do Wolfie and Glory need to be rescued from?”

For Wolfie, this was easy. He’s a malamute. Malamutes generally have a strong prey drive. In this area quite a few people keep livestock and/or free-range fowl. Wolfie needed to be rescued from a home he could escape from with impunity. The scenario I came up with involves nine or ten named characters who disappear off the radar once Shannon reluctantly adopts Wolfie.

Glory’s situation is much more challenging. Shannon senses that something’s not right at Glory’s house, but she doesn’t know what, and Glory (who, along with Shannon, is a point-of-view character) doesn’t have access to some of her own memories. Glory started out with a family: mother, stepfather, and younger half-brother. Who and where was her birth father? I wondered. The answer to this turned out to be very interesting. It also added four named characters to the cast, only one of whom plays a major role.

How to convey Glory’s dilemma when she can’t articulate it and Shannon and others outside the family can’t see it? This has wound up driving the plot and introducing another major character: Amira, the therapist who counsels Glory when she starts seriously acting out in second grade.

It also prompts Shannon to revisit her own past, which was hinted at but never elaborated on in Mud of the Place. As a teenager she fled her alcoholic, often violent family and has had little to do with any of her blood relatives in the decades since. Enter her younger sister, Jackie, now sober and wanting to re-establish contact. Their relatives have names, as do Jackie’s two adult children and ex-husband, but Jackie’s the important one.

Amira and Jackie, both added to serve the plot, have become fully developed characters in their own right. So has Hayden, Glory’s best friend and classmate, with whom she talks frequently at recess, both sitting on the playground swings. Other named characters — town officials, neighborhood farmers, partiers at a retirement celebration — do their bit and then exit into their own (as far as I know) yet unwritten stories.

The big surprise has been Glory’s mother, Felicia. As the story unfolds, Shannon can’t get over how badly she underestimated Felicia. I did too. A bit of advice: Some of your minor or walk-on characters may have more to say than you realize at first. Listen.

P.S. Here’s a good post on managing the character count by editor Marta Tanrikulu, a participant in the discussion I mentioned at the beginning of this post. It specifically addresses fantasy and science fiction, but much of it applies to any kind of fiction, and maybe memoir and other creative nonfiction as well.

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3 thoughts on “How Many Characters?

  1. An interesting question. It depends on the conventions of the genre, or even just on the novel itself … Not a novel, but I happen to be reading the Iliad at the moment: dozens of fighting characters are mentioned in one breath, some with histories, some recurring, some instantly killed off. At first it’s overwhelming but then you get used to it. As long as the important characters are clearly delineated, the other names can be seen as realistic detail of the backdrop. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to read a mystery with hundreds of names floating around—wouldn’t be fun (read: plausible) guessing who did it!

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  2. Characters sometimes push themselves into first place. I sent you my first chapter some time back and you critiqued it on your blog. Adjusting my opening following your advice raised more possibilities. Bertie, now my main character, has taken her rightful place in the story. She had to fight for that right. I resisted the urge to give her top billing. All my other characters moved aside to let her shine. It wasn’t till I presented her in a first new chapter that the work seemed to have cohesiveness.

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  3. Amazing how that happens, isn’t it? I’m nearing the end of draft 3 of the novel in progress. With drafts 1 and 2 I got almost to this point but couldn’t see my way through to the end, so I got to work on the next draft, trusting that eventually I’d figure it out. This time the last few chapters are unrolling before me as if they were just waiting to be discovered. And the key was letting one particular character grow beyond the role I’d assigned her. Finally!

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