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  1. #1

    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.

  2. #2
    @PeteMC666 PeteMC's Avatar
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    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.

  3. #3
    Shadow's Lure (June 2011)
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    Hey Prince,

    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.

  4. #4
    Registered User JimF's Avatar
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    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.

    Jim

  5. #5
    KMTolan kmtolan's Avatar
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    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.

    Kerry

  6. #6
    @PeteMC666 PeteMC's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kmtolan View Post
    Simple answer, actually. You have too many characters when the reader starts to lose interest.
    That is a fine point well made, although at the writing stage (ie before you have any readers) will still require some educated guesswork.

    If I had to put a number to it I'd say more than three POVs is probably pushing your luck.

  7. #7
    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 01:46 PM.

  8. #8
    Shadow's Lure (June 2011)
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    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).

  9. #9
    G.L. Lathian G.L. Lathian's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jon Sprunk View Post
    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).
    This is so true.

    I was so annoyed in WoT when Jordan would change POV to one of the numerous characters I didn't like. Often, I felt like the story wasn't moving, but just being juggled in the air because of the silly amount of POV's he would introduce.

    It's also problematic for the author, because their are bound to be characters that the reader doesn't gel with. Flicking from someone the reader likes to someone they don't is aggravating and sometimes, downright infuriating.

  10. #10
    @PeteMC666 PeteMC's Avatar
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    Oh lord, the number of Perrin-chases-Fail-and-the-Shaido chapters I skimmed just to get to the next interesting bit...

  11. #11
    Quote Originally Posted by Cononomous View Post
    This is so true.

    I was so annoyed in WoT when Jordan would change POV to one of the numerous characters I didn't like. Often, I felt like the story wasn't moving, but just being juggled in the air because of the silly amount of POV's he would introduce.

    It's also problematic for the author, because their are bound to be characters that the reader doesn't gel with. Flicking from someone the reader likes to someone they don't is aggravating and sometimes, downright infuriating.
    It's a tricky one. Some authors manage to pull it off, others not. In the first four or five books, Jordan managed well, and then he decided to start writing about every single dress there is out there. Likewise, GRRM did awesomely well in his first three books (or four, depends how you count), but in the last two, you can feel the span of years and attention affecting the plot alongside so many new and unnecessary characters. However, he juggled the masses well in the first 4,000 pages. It became a matter of desire, not skill in the last two.

    Then you have someone like Terry Goodkind, who has few characters, but gives you 70-page speeches. He also lost momentum after a while.

    I don't think it's the quantity of characters, it's their depth. If all your characters are identical, it becomes boring. People except a change when the point of view changes.

    Igor

  12. #12
    bingley bingley beep kissmequick's Avatar
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    Too many = one more than the author/story can handle.

    I think what you need to ask yourself is what does each POV add to the story? What are the drawbacks of adding each POV?

    Pros might be, you can add tension by showing plot points another POV character couldn't know about (the reader knows, but he doesn't, which if handled well can really up the tension), you can add scope to the world etc.

    Some drawbacks - the more POV characters you add, the less screentime they each get, which can mean less development (unless you're stretching out for a 2000 page behemoth). As noted above, with each added POV you run an additional risk of the reader not liking them. It's harder to keep a tight focus on the plot, and harder to keep your word count somewhere reasonable (not a problem GRRM has to contend with these days, I'm sure!).

    Obviously there are more points on each side, but you need to decide a) what you'll gain by adding a POV and b) whether it's worth what you might lose.

  13. #13
    We Read for Light Window Bar's Avatar
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    Buddies and Ensembles

    Quote Originally Posted by Jon Sprunk View Post
    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.
    Jon -- Doing a quick mental inventory of stories, I find myself myself mostly agreeing with you: It's usually one leading protagonist against one leading antagonist.

    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.

    Thoughts, anyone?

    --WB
    Last edited by Window Bar; September 14th, 2012 at 01:18 AM.

  14. #14
    We Read for Light Window Bar's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kissmequick View Post
    Too many = one more than the author/story can handle. (i.e.--POVs)
    Yes indeed. Those of us who have written our way into 100,000 words of constantly bifurcating plot lines have learned this lesson the hard way. A single viewpoint generally yields a story that can be told in a single chronology. The story is simpler almost by definition. As we add viewpoint, we add complexity exponentially.

    I'm glad you put "author" as one of the limiting factors. There are writers who can deliver half a dozen viewpoints without breaking a sweat, and without leaving the reader behind.

    -- WB

  15. #15
    @PeteMC666 PeteMC's Avatar
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    True. The flipside, of course, is that a single POV can really make plotting hard word, especially if you're writing in first person. I like first person, but have yet to pluck up the courage to attempt a whole book told in that way.

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