Winnowing Down the Cast

I have a book that I need to revise. I finished it a couple of months ago, and have tried very hard not to look at it whatsoever while waiting for my editorial letter in order to gain some perspective. I’ve also had the feedback from my agent and from some friends. One of which (goddes that she is), pinpointed a problem that I rather knew I had, but have NO IDEA how to fix it, short of a pipe bomb or some anthrax. What is that problem? Too many damned characters. It’s almost like a disaster movie where every last person needs to be on stage for their 15 minutes of fame.

This is not a good idea in a novel. I can’t hand out a program to readers as a guide. The solution? Kill people. Preferably before I actually commence the novel. They can’t be allowed on the stage. That’s sounds really easy, doesn’t it? If you’ve read my books, then you know already that I have no problem torturing, maiming, butchering, killing, dismembering, etc., my characters.  I know how to be vicious. The problem is, I don’t know who to kill off. Okay, that’s not entirely accurate. I know of several I can kill off. Others I can distill from many to one.

But I think that still leaves too many. Part of the problem is that there are a lot of minor characters hanging around and I can’t get rid of them without real plot problems–there has to be people hanging about. But how do I keep them from overwhelming the narrative? Dickens got away with a lot of minor characters–but I wonder if Dickens would be published today.  But either way, my name is not Dickens. This is my seventh book and I have to confess, I’m totally at sea on this question.

So I’m asking for your thoughts. How many characters are too many? I’m sure it varies, so how do you know when you’ve got too many?  what do you do when you start finding characters hiding behind the furniture and marching across the stage uninvited? How do you manage to have lots of characters dangling about without letting them get too pushy, and yet without also giving the impression that they are nameless drones?

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  1. 1. Satima Flavell

    I guess it depends on what you’re writing. GRRM, after all, has a cast literally of thousands in his Song of Ice and Fire series and he gets away with it. I have tried it and I just confuse people, including myself. Heck, I think evern the characters are confused!

    Most readers seem to prefer few POV characters. Three or four is good, four or five is acceptable, more than that and people tend to balk. I guess it’s hard to relate to any one character when s/he has a train of friends, enemies, servants and relations near and far.

  2. 2. Mindy Klasky

    As you note, the answer is somewhat dependent on the book. I find in general, though, that I don’t mind having a lot of characters, IF those characters are introduced in meaningful ways. I have given up on several books lately where Main Character walks into a room (a board meeting, a prison cell, a king’s council meeting) and proceeds to look around the room, introducing me-the-reader to all one dozen people present.

    Even if the dozen are important later on – and I’ll concede that sometimes they are – the style of their introduction can be deadly.

    So, what I do? Delete or consolidate every last character who doesn’t have a “speaking role.” (My most recent series deals with people in a theater company, so I’ve actually applied this rule literally.) Then, I figure out if there is *any possible way* to combine characters, so that I can eliminate one minor player. Then, on a later pass, I do another round of recombination and/or elimination, to see if I can make characters so minor they’re not noticed (e.g., “Unnamed Bartender”) or to see if I can further combine them with others (e.g. “bartender who delivers food to table, along with a witty observation, instead of waitress you never meet again.)

  3. 3. Alexander Field

    I agree with Satima above. 3-5 POV characters are about the max for me in terms of MAIN characters. I can only care about so many characters, good or bad. However, minor characters are less bothersome – especially if I don’t get to know every single thing about each one. I suppose you could combine the roles of some of these lesser characters.

    I also agree with Mindy that being introduced to a dozen characters early on (or more!) just makes for crazy reading. I’m all for combining characters and some brutal winnowing through the murdersome tactics mentioned in your post!

  4. 4. Tara Maya

    I would think it depends on the length of the story. If the book is long enough to allow for several subplots, then a larger cast is justified.

  5. 5. S.C. Butler

    How many characters are too many? – Depends on the book.

    I’m sure it varies, so how do you know when you’ve got too many? – When I start getting confused. If I don’t know who’s who, what will a reader think?

    what do you do when you start finding characters hiding behind the furniture and marching across the stage uninvited? – Promise them their own book if the go away, then break my promise.

    How do you manage to have lots of characters dangling about without letting them get too pushy, and yet without also giving the impression that they are nameless drones? – Cut their lifelines as soon as they start to dangle.

    Seriously, if you really need lots of minor characters to push the plot, then you’re probably going to have to make each of them briefly interesting in their own right. Are these characters who are going to pop up once, never to return? Fine, give them each a line or two to make them unique, then forget about them. On the other hand, if you have lots of minor characters who will be recurring, then you might want to think about consolidating them as much as possible, or turning them into a chorus of sorts. Consolidation is always a good thing, I think.

  6. 6. Missy Sawmiller

    I think the biggest factor in the number of characters is the length of the book and series. For a longer series, like The Crosspointe series, you have it nailed down pretty well. One to Two main characters with lots of secondary characters b/c the series is long and the plot effects so many. It’s also in third person.

    I think as long as a character doesn’t get their 15 minutes of fame and the reader is left wondering what happened to them, you should be ok. If they get 15 minutes and there isn’t a huge info dump or history given, then you should be ok.

    But that’s from me, a simple reader. :)

Author Information

Diana Pharaoh Francis

Diana Pharaoh Francis has written the fantasy novel trilogy that includes Path of Fate, Path of Honor and Path of Blood. Path of Fate was nominated for the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Recently released was The Turning Tide, third in her Crosspointe Chronicles series (look also for The Cipher and The Black Ship). In October 2009, look for Bitter Night, a contemporary fantasy. Diana teaches in the English Department at the University of Montana Western, and is an avid lover of all things chocolate. Visit site.

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