Too Many, Too Few… Characters

We all love characters. One of the biggest things that keeps me reading a story are the characters. What’s a world with no people in it?

In a previous post, Reading Character, I mostly focused on my opinions concerning protagonists (even though I didn’t explicitly state that).

Most of the time, the problem of too many characters is something that I see in fantasy or science fiction. For too few, it’s a lot of YA.

As a reader, I expect characters to serve a purpose. If I feel like there isn’t a reason for the character to exist… I get annoyed. I’m not sure if other readers feel this way consciously but I do think a blaring question comes up, “Why is this person even here?”

Characters that serve too similar a purpose should get a second look. If they don’t serve the story, they shouldn’t be there. If the names are too similar it’s also easy for the reader to confuse them.

With George R. R. Martin’s work, a lot of people seem to be taking on writing a ton of characters. The thing is, I personally got confused a lot reading it. The show is what really helped me remember the characters.

Right now, in my own writing, I keep having to work new characters into my story. There comes a realization in my process when I need a character that can serve this purpose for the story. That’s how it works for me.

Another thing that I’ve noticed, some writers feel the need to name everything and everyone. That isn’t necessary either. If a person doesn’t serve a major role in your story they don’t need a name.

Minor characters can be tricky. Personally, I go with a three times rule. If you see a character three times — that’s when they need a name and identity.

There are times when too few characters can pose a problem for world building. Without a lot of people in the world, it can feel empty.

Finding the balance here is difficult and something that I’ve seen many writers struggle with all the time. Every book is different in this respect. Every story for that matter.

  • The book should have some extras. People in it that are minor but noticed. A main character bumps into someone. He notices a couple of strangers doing something that reminds him of his problem. She watches some people do something at a party, it reminds her of how she feels about parties.
  • The minor characters illustrate a point. Provide back up like henchmen. Act as a support group. Come in at key moments to provide the right information for the moment.
  • The supporting characters cheer on the protagonist or antagonist. Are the source of deep and profound insight into the main character(s). Develop as well.

These don’t cover everything that these kinds of characters can be good for but I think you get my point.

Now I need to take my own advice. 🙂





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