Past posts on my blog have touched on the topic of characters. I’ve posted tips suggesting that you avoid having too many characters in your books and to avoid throw-away characters by combining traits and actions into fewer characters.
This begs the question that is the topic of this post, how many characters do you need in your story?
Well, there is no simple answer to this question. The prevailing rule of thumb, from the reading I’ve done, is that you should have as few characters as possible to tell your story effectively. Adding characters just because they have interesting traits or personalities can take away from the overall story.
Well, duh. Your book should have a main character in most cases. This is the person who drives the events in the book and, very often, from whose point of view the story is unveiled.
The main character is likely the one for which you provide the most detail. His or her appearance, background, strengths, weaknesses and motivations should be gradually revealed to your reader throughout your story.
There are advocates of creating a full character profile for your main character complete with detailed descriptions and backstory. The other extreme is to reveal details about your character as needed in the plot.
The danger of this second method is the appearance of traits or talents that were never hinted at earlier in the story. If your main character is a lawyer who is suddenly cornered and then exhibits a mastery of martial arts skills without any previous mention or hint of the ability, it might make your reader scratch his or her head.
The sidekick can be a very important character in your story. This is a character that your main character can play off of and have conversations with as ideas in the story come to light. The Sidekick can provide comic relief or a sense of conscience. In my Frank Rozzani series, I had originally intended my main character to be a loner. I wanted him to be a troubled detective with a tragic past that did everything on his own. I quickly discovered that, in a modern detective story, there are aspects of a case that involve technology, the law and other talents outside of the main characters possible abilities. I invented Clifford “Jonesy” Jones to be that sounding board and sidekick for Frank. Jonesy is a free spirit and a oft-described wise-ass that provides comic relief and gets Frank to loosen up once in a while. He is fun to write for and, beyond that, gives me the ability to express both sides of my own personality with a serious character and his not-so-serious sidekick.
Most stories need someone that the main character can be at odds with. Villains can be temporary in a book series or they can span various stories with the main character. Dr. Moriarty, adversary of Sherlock Holmes, is an example of a villain with staying power. Villains give the reader someone to cheer against. We keep turning pages hoping the hero will catch up with and vanquish the villain. The premise of good vs. evil has been around since the first tale was spun.
I try to use these characters sparingly. They should contribute to the advancement of the story and help bring the reader to resolution of the conflicts that are in the story. These characters can add color or can help to introduce new aspects of the story. If yo find yourself with a large number of secondary characters, you can combine them into more fully-developed characters that add to the story. There are exceptions to this. Stephen King’s book, The Stand, is an example of an epic tale with many well-developed characters that exist separately and then, those that survive, come together in an ensemble at the conclusion of the books. The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien is another example of the use of many characters that come together for a common cause.
So, what are your thoughts on characters? How many should you have? When do you know you have too many? I look forward to your thoughts.