Writers – Writing Tip #2 Not Too Many Characters

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This is the second of 12 posts for Writers who are planning to self-publish using the great services now available to the amateur writer, such as Smashwords, Amazon KDP, CreateSpace etc.

These mistakes are straight from week1 of “Good Writing 101”. You might get away with one or two of them; maybe people won’t notice. But if you consistently break these rules your chances of building a career as an author will be doomed.

2. Too many characters

This an area that I have to watch in my own writing. It’s so easy to introduce a new character to help with the plot. I do it without a second thought. But we need to consider the reader. Is there room in his/her head for another character? Can the story be told without this extra character? And what about the characters in the book already — are there opportunities to merge two characters into one without affecting the story?

So how many is too many characters? Of course this depends on the story. Some stories will require more characters than others. Robinson Crusoe suggests itself as a book with few characters, whereas Les Miserables must have a cast of hundreds.

Clearly, we need to distinguish between major and minor characters. Let’s define a major character as any character whose actions have a serious bearing on the plot. Minor characters are speaking parts, perhaps, that play minor roles in the storyline: the garrulous taxi driver, the switchboard operator with an attitude problem, the businessman who supplies that vital piece of information. The remainder are like the extras in a film: the third warrior on the left with the bent spear, an unnamed police constable who slaps the handcuffs on and leads the murderer away at the end.

For a novel to be successful, it needs to be populated with no more major characters than the “average” reader can keep in his/her head, and as few minor characters as possible. This raises more questions, of course. Who is this “average” reader? How good is his/her attention span? And so on. A good rule of thumb might be no more than 10 major and 15 minor characters. The number of extras doesn’t matter.

My own Ben Jordan books are probably a bit over-populated. The first, St Patrick’s Day Special, has 51 characters (10 major, 18 minor, 23 extras). The second, Find Emily, has 53 characters (12 major, 15 minor, 23 extras).

IMDb lists full cast and crew for movies, with a division between the cast and “other cast members” which I’m taking to mean major + minor characters combined and extras. Here are a few that I looked up:

Oliver (1968) : 41 + 16

David Copperfield : 28 + 10

Pickwick Papers : 34 + 13

Perfume : 62 + 14

Oceans 11 : 53 + 39

Mission Impossible 1 : 46 + 5

Mission Impossible 2 : 30 + 9

Mission Impossible 3 : 47 + 28

Mission Impossible 4 : 47 + 4

Cast Away : 58 + 3

Die Hard 1 : 60 + 5

Die Hard 2 : 85 + 7

Treasure Island : 32 + 4

Robinson Crusoe : 9 + 4

The Magnificent Seven : 23 + 8

Bonnie and Clyde : 9 + 16

Lord of the Rings 1 : 46 + 19

Lord of the Rings 2 : 41 + 21

Lord of the Rings 3 : 52 + 6

Les Miserables : 207 + 53

Cast Away was a surprise, as was Bonnie and Clyde.

Watch out for the next writing tip in this series.


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