Thursday, May 30, 2013

Too Many Characters?

Over the weekend at our house, we had a conversation about the problem of “too many characters” in a novel or series. What that principally means, of course, is too many named characters for the reader to keep track of. What’s the limit before you reach an excessive number? Some writing advice suggests an actual formula, so many characters for each word count range and no more. Surely the answer to this question depends a lot on what genre you’re writing. A category-length romance tends to play out on an intimate scale in which full development of the hero-heroine relationship leaves little or no space for subplots and, therefore, for major secondary characters. A mystery needs a wide enough pool of suspects to keep the reader guessing. An epic fantasy novel or trilogy, which is what we were discussing, allows scope for many more characters, in fact almost demands them. But how do we know when we’re reaching a cast of individualized characters so numerous the reader will get confused? It’s easy to say we should keep them if they’re all necessary to the story, but how do we decide which can be eliminated or combined without damaging the plot? In her play cycle THE MAN BORN TO BE KING, about the life of Christ, Dorothy Sayers explains in her authors’ comments how she merged some roles to make the huge cast a little more manageable. For instance, she made the centurion whose servant Jesus cured the same as the centurion at the crucifixion. She also adopted one ancient tradition that Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany were the same person.

There used to be a member in my online critique group who insisted no minor characters should have names, because singling them out with a name gives the reader the idea that they’re destined to play an important role in the story, and if they never do, the reader gets confused. I think this “rule” can be taken too far. For example, if the police chief is going to appear more than once, even as a walk-on, it seems to me less awkward to give him a name than to call him “the chief” over and over. Presumably the viewpoint character knows his name! In Dean Koontz’s latest novel, DEEPLY ODD, he gives a name to a waitress who appears in only one scene, and Koontz’s track record suggests he knows what he’s doing.

Is there such a thing as too few characters? I’ve written romance novellas and novelettes that have essentially two, the hero and heroine, with maybe a brief appearance by a third person at the beginning of the story. Obviously that limited a number of people would seldom work in a full-length novel. True, there are brilliant exceptions, such as Stephen King’s MISERY, populated for most of its span by only the protagonist and antagonist. As a writer, how do you make these choices? For the typical full-length novel, what type and number of secondary characters would you as a reader normally expect? If you pick up a book whose story is preceded by a long list of dramatis personae, the way some epic novels are, do you find that helpful or discouraging?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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