How many characters should I have?
This question borders on stupid, really, the answer is obvious: As many as it takes to tell the story.
Okay, great, as many as it takes, got it… How many you reckon that is?
For someone like me, these questions don’t seem stupid, nor does the obvious answer help. In my mind these are major issues. As a reader it’s easy to look at a huge epic fantasy series with dozens of main characters and think: “I am NOT going to to that” – or – “I totally want to do that”. I’m in more of the where’s Waldo? camp. That is, I really prefer to know who the main character is within a chapter or two. I get frustrated at stories where I’ve got to re-read a chapter just to meet and remember all of the characters who seem equally important. Now, it’s not that I think these are badly done, it’s that I don’t like them. From that perspective, I’m going to focus on writing a story where there are fewer characters to deal with.
When I started on my current project, I tried to keep the number of characters to an absolute minimum. This was a problem. Mainly because you’ve got to start with enough people to have dialogue and also conflict, even if it’s something as simple as a stolen horse. Someone’s got to do it and ideally there will be at least a couple of others to talk about it. Right off the bat that’s 3 people, and I haven’t even gotten the main character out of his village yet. Perhaps it’ll take a few more people to get him down the road. Turns out my minimalist ideal wasn’t an approach that would work with the story I’m writing, and after thinking about it starting off with 3 seems like a good rule of thumb.
So, what was my solution to keep the number of characters to something I felt comfortable with? Well, first of all the story is a 3rd person limited, with a focus on two specific characters with the idea that I’m going to stick with that one sub-plot. The second bit is that I’m trying to keep the number of characters in any given scene in the range of 3-4, more than that is hard anyhow (not impossible, of course, just hard). Thirdly, and most importantly, I only add in characters who are absolutely essential to the scene. The last part is that I avoid naming characters who aren’t significant to the story as a whole. So, a character might be essential for a scene, but doesn’t get a name because she isn’t essential to the larger story. This category of character is only given a one or two word description instead of a proper name – this is a super common approach, but I’m taking it a little further than you usually see it in that these names are how the main characters think about them and apply to people that would usually get a name.
These are tricks I’ve seen in tons of other stories, and so I don’t know that it qualifies as advice, or even gets to the point, but this is how I’m approaching my story. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on the subject at some point.