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Thread: How many characters is too many?
September 13th, 2012, 09:42 AM #1
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How many characters is too many?
I'm currently reading Steven Erikson's Gardens of the Moon and the amount of characters is making my head spin. Another one of my favourite authors who loves piling on characters (and then killing them off) is Martin.
These two writers however tend to write epics so a fair chunk of the book (call it a mini-book) is devoted to a single character (ie. Tyrion who gets upward 60k words a book devoted to him). So, I think, in these cases the amount of characters is justified because a. the books are long and b. it's an epic story.
So to narrow down my question, how many characters per 10k words/chapter/section is acceptable?
The reason I ask is because I am currently working on a project that has 6 main protagonists and 3 main antagonists, and I introduce 6 of them in less 10k words, which is less than 1.6k words each.
Basically, I don't want to get into the situation I faced a lot when reading David Weber's Honor Harrington series where I didn't even know who half the characters were because there were just too many to keep track of.
September 13th, 2012, 09:50 AM #2
How long is a piece of string? Or the ever helpful answer, "it depends".
A more salient question is probably "how many POV characters is too many". If you have six characters all sticking together in a group, and you see all the action from one character's POV, that's fine.
Six different POVs in six different places all doing different things, though, might be a bit hard to keep up with over that short a piece.
September 13th, 2012, 09:53 AM #3
Well, there are no hard-and-fast rules. You can try anything you can imagine. The devil is in the execution.
It might help if we were using the same terms. You mention 6 main protags and 3 main antags. That's not going to work. You have one protag and one antag, and everyone else is a secondary character. That doesn't mean the secondaries aren't important. They can have lots of on-screen time, lots of good dialogue (in fact, they should), and a big part of the story. They can be so ubiquitous that it's difficult to tell who is the main character and who the secondary. But your story still revolves around one central conflict between the protag and the antag.
September 13th, 2012, 03:46 PM #4
Buddies and Ensembles
Then I recall certain ensemble stories. The Great Escape (a quasi-factual movie of a group of POWs who escape from a WWII German stalag) comes to mind. Also, certain "buddy" pieces like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid seem to feature more than one protagonist.
Though I was a lit major in school (decades ago), I can't recall this issue ever being discussed. I suppose for each of us as readers (or viewers), we choose a character with whom to identify. In Butch Cassidy, guys seemed to zero in on the Paul Newman character, gals on the Robert Redford character.
These days, it seems to be in fashion to create artificial ensembles of characters (viz-- super-heroes) to combine their talents in titanic struggles against (minor chord from an organ) Evil.
Last edited by Window Bar; September 14th, 2012 at 02:18 AM.
September 13th, 2012, 05:17 PM #5
September 13th, 2012, 05:56 PM #6
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Eastern literature and culture on the other hand is more about the society or the group. I enjoy Japanese stories and I often read stories where there are multiple protagonists and antagonists (usually because people just don't live that long and pass off their raison d'etre to their children).
Bringing up Martin again, I don't think I can identify a central protagonist and antagonist in his Song of Ice and Fire series, so I do believe stories can have multiple protagonists and antagonists.
September 13th, 2012, 06:49 PM #7
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.
September 13th, 2012, 06:56 PM #8
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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.
September 13th, 2012, 11:57 PM #9
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:
or a main storyline with multiple nodes that looks like this:
September 13th, 2012, 09:53 AM #10
I don't really know if there are any hard and fast rules on how many characters is too many. I would think you should strive for the least amount needed to tell your story. If the character isn't needed to tell the story why is he or she or it in there?
For large complicated stories you can add a dramatis personae I really appreciate it when these are included in a book. There are other things you can do to keep things clear like not giving characters similar names like one guy named Bob and another named Bobby.
September 13th, 2012, 10:08 AM #11
Is it further to Boston or by bus?
Simple answer, actually. You have too many characters when the reader starts to lose interest. Why? Because readers like identifying and living through a good character, and not be derailed time and again by changes.
The most I've seen an author successfully juggle and keep that interest going is four characters - each getting their own chapter. Not a formula, just my observation. Oh, and the characters were each incredibly well written with serious depth, each capturing your attention in turn.
Not a path I'd choose for a beginning author without thinking real hard about it.
September 13th, 2012, 11:54 AM #12
September 13th, 2012, 12:48 PM #13
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If you're anything like George R.R. Martin there is no such thing as too many. :P
Last edited by Riothamus; September 13th, 2012 at 02:46 PM.
September 13th, 2012, 01:10 PM #14
It depends on the scope of the story. A 300-page novel can support fewer pov characters than a 2000-page novel.
One of the problems that authors of 10-book, 1500-page-per-book series run into is that they keep introducing new pov characters and end up with casts of dozens, so instead of story progression they spend many of those pages performing a literary juggling act. The result is reader burnout (and author burnout, too).