How many characters is too many?

Discussion in 'Writing' started by Princeroth, Sep 13, 2012.

  1. Jon Sprunk

    Jon Sprunk Book of the Black Earth

    Joined:
    Oct 2, 2009
    Messages:
    783
    Likes Received:
    0
    Stories can have many characters working on either side (and some working both sides), but your story comes down to a central conflict. For Martin's first book, without going back and reading it again, I'd say the conflict is between Ned Stark and Cercei.

    Please don't misunderstand me. You should have well-constructed, vibrant secondary characters that contribute in great and small ways. But the central conflict is what drives your story, either directly or indirectly.
     
  2. Laer Carroll

    Laer Carroll LaerCarroll.com

    Joined:
    Mar 3, 2009
    Messages:
    1,313
    Likes Received:
    0
    EFFECTIVE multi-protagonist books are harder to pull off than single-protagonist books. Simple logic. It's hard enough to pull off a SINGLE-PROTAGONIST book.

    With several protagonists each one has to be at least mildly interesting. Else readers will get annoyed at having to skip over the protagonists they find boring. And may just decide to heck with the whole thing and throw it across the room. And avoid your other books.

    Doesn't mean it can't be done, of course. Just that it's a lot harder than single-protagonist books.
     
  3. KatG

    KatG Fulgurous Staff Member

    Joined:
    Mar 22, 2003
    Messages:
    12,333
    Likes Received:
    0
    It's just a matter of story structures. Large multi-volume one-story epics have one central protagonist who is the focus of the main themes of the story. That protagonist is part of the central node of a wider lattice which can spread out like tree branches or interlocking rings which can make up the main focus of books within the series or large parts of those books. It doesn't matter really how long a character is on stage, although readers do get clues to importance by how much narrative time is given to a character (a particularly tricky issue if you're doing a mystery in misdirecting the reader.) Being a pov character does not make you a protagonist. It doesn't even necessarily make you important. It makes you a camera. However, many pov characters are very important, absolutely critical to the story in their storylines and interesting in and of themselves. But that doesn't make them the protagonist. It seems to be something that upsets people sometimes -- that a character is not a protagonist, even if that character is very important, like you're saying that the character can't have a medal or something. But it's really not a demotion to be a critical player to the story and its theme and get lots of storytime but not be the protagonist.

    Quest books with a small group that does not separate are another type of story structure and the plot structure is more linear with occasional loops or ovals as parts diverge and remerge. A lone figure story is another structure. If characters are all in one city and do not leave the city, for instance, that's another structure. (You may have heard, for instance, of "bottle episodes" in television, in which the entire story for an episode takes place on one set in one time frame without a lot of extra, new characters.)

    Bottle structures, multi pivot stories, or quest stories, etc., are not necessarily easier to do, although they may be somewhat easier to keep track of small details on. You're still dealing with theme and you probably are going to have fewer pov characters, which makes it harder, not easier, to convey information, especially for a secondary world story where you are introducing completely new cultures.

    Viewpoint formats effect structure. A first person narrative limits the camera angles the most, but that can be effective for certain story structures -- such as mystery, which is why it's used often in contemporary fantasy novels because they are doing mysteries. A first person pov character is not necessarily the protagonist. Dr. Watson is the first person narrator/camera of the Sherlock Holmes stories and he's not the protagonist. He is very important to the stories, absolutely essential to their existence and themes. He's just not the protagonist. We are never in Holmes' head because Doyle does not want us to know everything that Holmes is thinking. But in many mystery stories, the author does and the detective character is the protagonist and narrator. Third person gives you wider options, although those wider options don't have to be pursued. Spending lots of time in a character's head, though, doesn't make that person a protagonist.

    So it's kind of like the choice of building a sprawling ranch style building versus a tall tower -- both buildings will work fine and can look pretty, and both have a central foundation of theme. Martin's Song is a sprawling ranch with lots of rooms, but the series has the theme based in the symbolic years long turning of the seasons -- winter and darkness is coming, with the Others and the rising dead and other horrors, driving all before it, and yet the humans, the young race, aren't preparing, have lost their best weapons, and plunge into war as the seasons change. The series protagonist is Jon Snow, the Stark bastard whose origins may be even more important, who goes north to the winter and faces the on-coming threat, is central to the coming conflict, is desperately trying to find weapons, etc. Jon symbolizes all Martin's themes about identity, loss, duty, betrayal and choice. His conversation with Aemon sums up what he and all the other characters face in the face of the deadliest end for all of them. Everything spreads, lattice like, from Jon's decision to go north to the Wall.

    Jon is also the book protagonist of two books in the series, A Game of Thrones and A Storm of Swords. In Game, he decides to leave his family -- and the identity of his family -- to go North to winter and his family falls apart behind him as summer ends. His father's choices are a reflection of his own and a view of the decisions that Jon faces and will be facing -- how to save everyone, how to perform duty, etc. In Swords, the story is in autumn, the penultimate battle to keep the Wall standing, and Jon must continually make choices about what his roles will be and bring the far north together to prepare for winter. The other battles and plot events link into that issue of autumn. In A Clash of Kings, Tyrion is the protagonist, as the book builds, lattice like, around his transition from extra limb of his family to leader (a reflection of Jon's,) and the Battle of Blackwater where he also is looking at the changing of the seasons, the start of autumn where he sees his family fall apart, and facing choices about that. The other characters do too, but the lattice is structured for that part of the story on that central struggle. In A Feast of Crows, Cersei is the protagonist (though somewhat by default,) -- a character whose pov we haven't had before, but who, from a different angle, is facing the changing of the seasons, choices of identity, duty, betrayal, etc. and all the plot threads lead back to her. In A Dance with Dragons, Danys, always an important character, is the protagonist. It is her choices of identity, role, duty, family, path of preparation, etc. that the story is built around as autumn ends. But those lattice pieces of the books interlock around the Wall, the coming Others and Jon, at least so far.

    But that's not always the story that an author wants to tell. Sometimes the author wants to tell a tower story instead. And some readers may like one or the other more, as we know. The author has to figure out where to put the cameras and how many -- the scope. But a broad scope still has a focal point, a thruline. In Martin, it's winter is coming. In Jordan's Wheel of Time, it's the turn of the wheel, of Jesus' journey to building hope. In your story, it will be something and you'll build the story around it, whether you have one pov character or thirty, one main story line with a few sub-plots:

    [​IMG]

    or a main storyline with multiple nodes that looks like this:

    [​IMG]
     
  4. Fung Koo

    Fung Koo >:|Angry Beaver|:

    Joined:
    Oct 31, 2007
    Messages:
    2,407
    Likes Received:
    0
    Oh, the arty-farty answers :p

    From a strictly (super-basic, horribly generalized) neuroscientific standpoint, there are a few basic facts that I believe factor into the reading experience, especially where it pertains to the number of characters (and not just PoV character). It behooves a writer to at least be aware that brain functioning does impact certain things, like making stuff memorable. Stuff like characters.

    Some characters are really just mobile props. They can be well rounded, but generally don't need to be all that developed. They could just as easily be a horse as a human -- even horses have personalities. You can have lots of these. So the (crap I'm doling out) below doesn't really apply.

    But for characters that you want a reader to have a clear picture of, basic and bastardized neuroscience says:
    • Less than 7 seconds of time being exposed to something will likely not result in a memory, unless it is a particularly strong stimulus. 7 seconds is the average upper limit of short term memory. Every 7 seconds, the brain assesses what it has been paying attention to, determines if that stimulus is ongoing, and if not then it compresses and/or ejects the experience as probably "irrelevant." (this is where time compression sense in a disaster comes from -- strong stimuli force a reset, and ramp up the internal timing mechanism in neurons.)
    • 7-10 seconds is the sweet zone to implant a basically memorable memory -- really just a simple memory referent. It's longer than the "delete-irrelevant" level, and not so long as "bored-avert attention" level. Let's call this "one development point."
    • Depending on the readers' preferences (interests) and attentional capacities, more salient memories can be created by having a stimulus continue for up to 10 short term memory cycles before the brain starts to get bored of it and desires new/added stimulus. So, you've got up to 2 minutes or so -- again, depending on the strength of the stimuli -- to drop memorable character development into the readers head. This continuing of the stimulus does not necessarily add any additional development points (usually it does not, except for a curve-ball strong stimulus)
    • The average reader can cover about 50-60 words in 7-10 seconds (with like +/- 20 words on that range). When attention is at its peak, this number goes up. When it's low, it goes down. Again, stimulus strength matters (i.e. excitement, motivation, and interest), but we're just talking generalness.
    • It takes about 10 such experiences for something to become "familiar" and recognizable (e.g. I can recognize this horrible pungent taste to be "an olive"), and 20-30 of them (26 on average) to have a developed "taste" (e.g. This olive tastes different from that olive, and I like this one more). About 10 development points create recognition, an about 26 development points create a good, strong memory.
    • To develop on top of each other (i.e. mutually reinforce), these experiences must be separated by roughly by 10 to 100 short term memory cycles before repeating (in other words, each encounter separated by 1-10 mid-term memory cycles). The brain needs to avert its attention from a stimulus and return to it -- this is part of the re-checking and prediction process of memory implantation. If the stimulus is not repeated or referred to at least once within about the next 7 cycles, the recording tends to be faulty, but still exists. Subsequent referral to the stimulus can take place anytime in the next several days, with an upper limit somewhere around a month (e.g. I can't remember what was going in this story, I better re-read a bit and refresh my memory)

    So in a one hour reading session, a reader will typically want to encounter the character, and learn something about them (including actions they make) at least 3 times, and those three times need only take 2 minutes at a pop. Repeat this another 8 or 9 times (8 or 9 hours to read a book, say, spread out over several days/weeks), and you'll have a strong, memorable character.

    So, neurologically speaking, for a reader to have a strong sense of a character, you're typically looking at between 500 (50 x 10) and 1300 (50 x 26) words specifically dedicated to making each character memorable, with a space of 500 words minimum between stimuli. So for one character to get two development points, you need a thousand words. Because of the 500 word gap, you can get a second character in those thousand words, but often can't get the second development point unless you add 500 more words.

    For flash fiction the challenge is to up the stimulus strength on your development points so they are a) more memorable, and b) repeatable more often. In flash, you want to get your 10 development points inside 1000 words. For a short story of, say, 5000 words, you can hit an easy 10 development point on two characters, and by adding some strong stimuli you can ramp that up and either add one or two more characters, or aim for your 26 points on one character in particular.

    The longer the piece, the more points are possible, the more well-developed characters you can have.

    ...but of course, this is all a load of hogwash ;)
     
  5. Andrew Leon Hudson

    Andrew Leon Hudson and Noumenon was his name

    Joined:
    Feb 18, 2008
    Messages:
    1,438
    Likes Received:
    0
    I don't know what you all saw, but -
    - at first glance I saw that.
     
    Last edited: Sep 14, 2012
  6. Laer Carroll

    Laer Carroll LaerCarroll.com

    Joined:
    Mar 3, 2009
    Messages:
    1,313
    Likes Received:
    0
    Bravo, Kat.

    I especially liked this point!

    You liken this to a tower. It could also be tent or a hut - a short story!

    This like a "sprawling ranch style building."

    One example is the Ring Trilogy. Which is only a trilogy because it was cut, none too well in my opinion, because it would not fit into one volume.

    Frodo is the most important character because the One Ring is so powerful it must be destroyed. All the other stories, though they involve many thousands of characters, are intended by Gandalf as diversions of Sauron from the progress of the Ring, which is sneaked into the volcano near Sauron's fortress by a sort of back door.
    ________________________________________________​

    Then there are (usually multi-volume) MULTI-story epics. These are like an entire city, if we carry the building metaphor further. It has more than one crucially important character. Or perhaps it has one character, but the character is the city. Or even larger structures, where the main character is a nation.

    Examples might include Dr. Zhivago, about the genesis of Russia. Or Exodus, about the creation of Israel. (Though my memories of both are dim and I may be wrong.)

    Stories of a nation at war are often of this kind. We have important characters who might be at the top of the food chain or at the bottom or somewhere in between - presidents and privates and factory bosses and workers at home. And the wives who may be mere cheerleaders to their soldier husbands - but may also be utterly necessary to the story. Because in their tiny daily struggles with boredom and despair and hunger and fear for their children may be in miniature the same as the struggles of million-fold armies.

    Oh, Yay! Chris is back! You've been missed.
    .
    .
    .​
     
    Last edited: Sep 14, 2012
  7. Fung Koo

    Fung Koo >:|Angry Beaver|:

    Joined:
    Oct 31, 2007
    Messages:
    2,407
    Likes Received:
    0
    After a crazy busy summer, going from one side of Canada to the other, and a jaunt to NYC in between, spending no longer than 4 days in any one place... I need some mental stimulation from all y'all. :D
     
  8. KatG

    KatG Fulgurous Staff Member

    Joined:
    Mar 22, 2003
    Messages:
    12,333
    Likes Received:
    0
    Waves at Fung!

    Actually, I think I did that wrong, because by mentioning building structures, I was talking about focus and plot bones, not length of text. A short story can be a tower story in structure or it can be a sprawling ranch house, though usually with less sprawl. (You've only got 7 seconds, after all.) It's how the author constructs the plot. If you break down a story to its plot skeleton and pov characters, including pure omniscient narrator text, if there is any, then you can see the underlying structure. Martin's story is a little like a Bethe lattice -- a snowflake with the Others and Jon in the center. (And some of you use the Snowflake method, I believe for your plotting or writing, which may use similar ideas to create a structure.)

    But not every story is a snowflake story (I'm just piling on the analogies now,) with different nodes to the pattern. Sometimes the plot structure is a more direct line with some tangents. Sometimes the plot structure is around what specifically happens in the mind of a character, which means that you're probably going to focus very tightly on that character and his or her pov. Sometimes the story is about how the character effects the world, which means that you are likely to focus on other characters in relation (in first, third, second, etc.) Or the story may be entirely about the world itself -- environmental apocalypse, alien invasion, the changing of Middle Earth to the kingdom of the humans, etc. A mystery story has, in pure form, a particular structure, over which other structures, such as for a thriller plot, can be placed. In stories, everything connects and it connects around the interests and choices of the author.

    For any story goal you have, any theme, you can create any number of different plot structures (and character set-ups) to achieve it. It's a combo of what will serve the center goal/theme/focus (central plot focus) with how you want readers to be given a view of characters, imagery and events in the story. (Viagra for sale, Noumenon, but only in Spain. :) ) Viewpoint formats are a way of effecting what readers are given, as are pov characters.

    So if you want the reader to be very deeply focused on a character in service to the central goal, then having a lot of pov characters may not work -- or it could, if those characters reflect variations of the central character. If you want to set up a puzzle, you may focus on one character who works on the puzzle. If you want to show the full scope of a war, you may have different characters at different points (a lattice) that feeds readers info in the directions that you want them to go towards a central experience about war.

    It is true that readers can get bored with those different characters and their storylines. They don't see that those storylines reflect or feedback into the central node, or they may, but that part of the lattice doesn't interest them or feel like it's moving the whole thing forward. But that's a preference. And another reader will have the opposite preference. If the author doesn't share the particular preference, it doesn't help the author much to try and write according to it (unless the author wants to experiment.)

    So the question is, given that it's obviously a third person story, why did Princeroth have nine main characters, what are they for, what are they centrally building around, what is Princeroth's main focus and related focuses, who is best set up to provide the info that readers need concerning that focus in the way that Princeroth wants to deliver it among the nine main characters and other characters. The characters are all potential cameras -- although they do not have to be pov characters to be main characters. How important are the characters and their internal lives versus the world setting and plot events to the central focus of the story? What is the stylistic and thematic tone of the story? What do you want readers to see and experience? (Never mind whether they like it or not yet.) How can you use the pov characters to make things clear when you want it to be clear and fuzzy when you want it to be fuzzy? And so on.

    If you're going to focus on a character for a short patch or a long one, it has a purpose as part of the structure. Erikson is attempting to create a historical narrative, which, like real history, has people wandering in and out of key events, and like we study history, does not necessarily get related chronologically because it's the world that is being studied. All his characters show the parts of the world -- the god system, the major cultural shifts the world undergoes at various times. It's all in service to the theme, which is about cultural and ideological shifts, so he has lots of little nodes essentially reporting their part of the shifts. But someone doing a story about the bond between brothers isn't doing that. He's going to concentrate on the brothers. He may use a bunch of other characters to do that, but it relates back to the brothers and their bond. So it's a different structure, neither worse or better, neither easier or harder to write, though with less detail keeping maybe.

    So, Princeroth, you can take a look at the specifics of your story -- what do you need, why are these people there, who are you most interested in, what are you most interested in, etc. Obviously, authors like Martin, Weber and Erikson have done well with their lattices, and other authors like Butcher and Rothfuss have done well without lattice structures. They are looking at different things. (Okay, that's enough word vomit from me today. Louis Vuitton handbags for everybody!)
     
    Last edited: Sep 14, 2012
  9. Andrew Leon Hudson

    Andrew Leon Hudson and Noumenon was his name

    Joined:
    Feb 18, 2008
    Messages:
    1,438
    Likes Received:
    0
    I'm watching closely here because my own YA WIP* is also quite the multi-headed hydra of a tale. My intention is (to fool the world into thinking I can write a novel, and) to weave a series of short stories together into one larger piece. To skim over a particular contradictory detail, the book is in three parts, each part has six "chapters", and each "chapter" follows one of my six child protagonists on a discrete adventure.

    Between each part they jump ahead several years, until at the end of the book I have half of them in one (geographical and "philosophical") place, and half of them in another (geographically separate but "philosophically" opposed to the first bunch, more or less). In the subsequent story I plan to continue shifting between specific POVs on a chapter-by-chapter basis, even when one group of "protagonists" are in constant proximity; while we are riding with a particular protag I want to keep the inner experiences of the other kids masked from him or her (and from the reader too, at least until the story progresses and I jump heads).

    None of this is via inner-monologue, by the way, just a changing lead focus. I am using Martin's SOIAF-GOT-ATGC-GATC-CTGA-CAGT-TACG-CONT-INUE-DDNA-META-PHOR-TOOL-ONGT-OBEF-UNNY as a rough template, if not exactly an inspiration; I admire the effort but find it decreasingly satisfying. Anyway, that's enough about me. This thread is very interesting, thanks for all the brain food.

    * Not the sound a cowboy makes
    SPAM!

    Oh, but they are precious. And what value. *click*

    ---LAPTOP DEATH---
     
    Last edited: Sep 14, 2012
  10. Laer Carroll

    Laer Carroll LaerCarroll.com

    Joined:
    Mar 3, 2009
    Messages:
    1,313
    Likes Received:
    0
    The snowflake / spider-web structure imaged above is similar to the diagrams used by sociologists and social psychologists to show associations. They may use colors for some of the links, perhaps red for hate and green for love, and so on. They may also use different kinds of lines: solid, dotted, or dashed, and so on, perhaps to indicate birth or clan kinship. And arrowheads or icon heads of lines for other info. Even diagrams of fairly small groups can become very elaborate, so much so that they become useless.

    Those indicate a web for a particular time. But humans change relationships all the time, in the real and the fictional world. So two people might become engaged, then married, then divorced. People can be hired or fired, promoted or demoted, changed from vice squad to murder squad to robbery.

    And we writers have to create and keep track of all this somehow!
     
  11. R.J.

    R.J. Is Winter Coming?

    Joined:
    Apr 30, 2010
    Messages:
    856
    Likes Received:
    0
    Sorry if it has been mentioned, I just skimmed, but it would also dependent on scene/context. Someone like Steven Erikson who is weaving this gargantuan epic history has so many characters it truly is astonishing. In certain sequences he jumps from head to head to head to head to head to head to head you get the point, but always when there is a good reason for it (like seeing a cataclysmic event or whatever through a number of differing POVs so the reader gets a multifaceted view of whatever is going on).
    Martin gives each POV its own chapter so it is relatively easy to keep track of stuff (much easier than Erikson at any rate, who often can start new sequences without revealing who we are supposed to "look through").
    Personally I think the more, the merrier :)
     
  12. KatG

    KatG Fulgurous Staff Member

    Joined:
    Mar 22, 2003
    Messages:
    12,333
    Likes Received:
    0
    Erikson uses a third person omniscient format where his omniscient narrator can flick through viewpoints. Martin uses third person limited, keeping tight on one pov character per chapter. So that's part of it. If you do feel you need to have a lot of viewpoints on events in the story, third person omniscient can be a very useful technique for delivering multiple pov's quickly.
     
  13. secluded

    secluded Breaker of Walls

    Joined:
    Apr 25, 2012
    Messages:
    24
    Likes Received:
    0
    Hmm...I thought I posted in this thread earlier.


    As long as the characters are interesting, I'll enjoy the book. How many characters did Sanderson use in Way of Kings?

    I do hate when it takes a dozen chapters before an author goes back to a previous pov. That's just annoying.
     
  14. Modern Day Myth

    Modern Day Myth Registered User

    Joined:
    May 23, 2009
    Messages:
    143
    Likes Received:
    0
    I think the best way to answer the question is with another question.

    Does adding more characters confuse the story to readers by blurring the path too much?

    And, does removing a character or characters clear up your story so readers follow it easier?

    These questions will help to gauge the proper answer.
     
  15. G.L. Lathian

    G.L. Lathian G.L. Lathian

    Joined:
    Aug 16, 2011
    Messages:
    257
    Likes Received:
    0
    Those questions can be answered easily: it depends on how good the author is.
     
  16. Modern Day Myth

    Modern Day Myth Registered User

    Joined:
    May 23, 2009
    Messages:
    143
    Likes Received:
    0
    Is this a thread for writers or fans of authors?
     
  17. Loerwyn

    Loerwyn Staff

    Joined:
    Jun 16, 2009
    Messages:
    6,209
    Likes Received:
    0
    Mostly the former but there's nothing to stop the latter joining in.
     
  18. Modern Day Myth

    Modern Day Myth Registered User

    Joined:
    May 23, 2009
    Messages:
    143
    Likes Received:
    0
    I am asking these questions to help new writers to have a strategy to fix a problem a writer may come across and needs help to solve.
     
  19. kissmequick

    kissmequick bingley bingley beep

    Joined:
    Nov 11, 2008
    Messages:
    134
    Likes Received:
    0
    I don't think it is just a matter as 'as good as the author'

    There are other considerations

    The scope of the story

    The characters

    Whether you 'need' that POV - is it just gratuitous? Filler? There because you think they are cool/Or are they there because they need to be for the story you are telling?

    Some stories work better as single POVs and some don't - it depends on the story. And, yes, the author that handles it

    It's a whole complex mass to look at.
     
  20. G.L. Lathian

    G.L. Lathian G.L. Lathian

    Joined:
    Aug 16, 2011
    Messages:
    257
    Likes Received:
    0
    Yes, but a good author understands all those things.