First off, I’m not anti-big book and I do enjoy the occasional door stopper with a cast list longer in word count than the first chapter or two combined. Yes skeptics, these kinds of books do still exist in the speculative fiction world and even in the case of some historicals. So I’d like to first disclaim any idea that I think everyone should have a set, small amount of characters. That is not the aim of this post. Got it? Great.
One of my earliest flaws as a writer was loving character creation too much. I could whip out huge casts for any given story, each with unique backgrounds, looks, and personalities. Juggling them in my mind—piece of cake. Handing those stories over to readers I discovered that I might be able to juggle lots of details and characters better than others. Which presented a problem: I needed to learn to use fewer characters much more wisely.
A year or so ago I took my current WIP (nearly done—Yay!!) and hacked down the character list. I didn’t have a ginormous cast, but there were too many names floating around the manuscript and some of my early beta readers complained. I listened.
When world-building, it’s so easy to get carried away in planning everything out: the history, backstories, places, events, rules, politics, religions, systems of magic or science, etc. Great stuff, but while immersed in all this splendid wonder of creation we don’t realize that our readers aren’t going to have all those hours of development at their fingergtips. They’re getting the finished product, which takes considerably less time to read. Therefore, they aren’t going to appreciate or get all that world-building in this smaller dose and if we, the writers, throw it all in at them—well, they don’t like it very much.
So let’s talk about having too many characters today. First off, do you have a character list or directory? No?
Step 1: Make one. Write down the name and a brief description of every single person (animal, or active living thing character) that is in your story.
*You’ll want this character list as part of your submission package if you deal in large casts of characters. Pronunciation guides come in handy here too.
Step 2: Classify each character as a:
a) Main Character
b) Main Antagonist
c) Secondary Character
d) Secondary Antagonist
e) Tertiary Character
f) Mentioned Character (anyone important to the story that doesn’t have an active role, say a dead person, or someone far away)
Step 3: Then assign an attribute of purpose to each character. That is, what in the world are they doing in the book? Are they a mentor, a source of information, a troublemaker, a love interest, etc.? Why are they vital to the story?
Step 4: Can you combine the roles of any of these characters? Say you have a shopkeeper who is a source of info for your main protagonist and you’ve got the blacksmith down the street acting as another source of information. Can you cut one of these characters and use only one of them for this role? Do you really need both?
Or say you have the informative blacksmith helping out the MC, might they also take on the role of double-agent? Acting as a source of info for the main antagonist as well?
Do you really need everybody in your cast list to fulfill only one purpose? Hint: a great way to make well-rounded characters is to give everyone more than one purpose.
Might the delivery boy in the beginning of the book also show up later with the missing piece to the crime puzzle your hero’s trying to solve? You don’t need to create a new character for this later role. Cycle your characters and make them count, have more impact, more purpose.
Step 5: Look for characters that are really just scenery. Drop their names and give them a generic title like: the janitor, the sage, the dragon keeper. Look especially for people in groups that hang out, work, or travel together. It’s cozy and fun to create a wide spectrum of personalities and talents to spice up a manuscript but are you really creating tangents for your readers to try to unravel instead? Scenery characters don't need names, only their designations.
Sometimes more is just more. We don’t need to know the name of everyone in a traveling troupe and not all of these people will be enjoyed (no matter how interested you, as the writer, are in them) if you try to use them all together all the time. It slows down dialogue and creates messy scenes. Sometimes characters need to be mere scenery themselves and only the important players identified.
The other fine balance to having a large cast of characters is their strategic use. The hero/heroine meets people on their way through the story. I think it’s natural for a writer to want to zap up each new person as part of the MCs retinue and have them tag along (as if they had no life of their own or weren’t already headed in some direction.) It’s okay to meet someone and let them slip away for awhile. They don’t need to be present for everything else that follows. Big fantasy novels tend to do this or stories using the heroic journey theme.
Watch out for giving characters too many designations as well. I’ve read stories where one person has a birth name, the name they go by professionally, the name they go by personally, plus a nickname, or title. It’s too much. Stick to one (or two at the most, if you have to.)
So to sum it up, evaluate your cast and make sure everyone’s got reason for being there. Combine roles if you can for more punch, and cycle your characters so they aren’t one scene wonders. If you need to have a huge cast, use them strategically and never all at once in dialogue. Avoid the magnet trap where characters drop what they’re doing or where they’re heading in order to join the protagonist’s posse. Don’t give any one character too many names or titles.
Depending on the depth of your book and how many plot layers it has, plus how much time your protagonist spends in any one place will have a bearing on your character numbers. Less is more, they say. Err on the side of the few and purposeful to make complex characters (even the tertiary ones), rather than more names for readers to juggle. It’s hard, it’s painful, you bleed inside, but the story gets better.