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Too Many Characters? - 05/30/2013

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 a...

Too Many Characters?

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