Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Writer's Corner: Too Much Character?

Whenever anyone asks me if I had imaginary friends as a child I always emphatically answer "NO! That's weird." I didn't have imaginary tea parties or make believe buddies to walk to school with. It's kind of redundant to have an imaginary friend when you have five siblings who just won't get out of your face. In fact, I think I wanted them to turn imaginary at one stage or another.
     Then I reached high school and a funny thing happened. I started making up stories. I don't know why. Maybe the real people just weren't interesting enough. I'd lived 16 years without a single vampire/werewolf/zombie showing up. So I made up my own. Now I can't stop doing it and the result is that I keep trying to cram all of my characters into the books I write.
     As a result, my books tend to be supporting cast heavy. The writer in me keeps trying to push this agenda despite my inner reviewer crying out for rationality. Sometimes lots of supporting characters add a richness to the story. Think Harry Potter or Game of Thrones. But mostly, when a book has too many characters, they tend to blend together and become indistinguishable. I've read a few of these types of books and they often frustrate me more than anything else.
    So I've been thinking about the techniques that writers use to make characters stand out. Sometimes they give them unforgettable names. Sometimes they have special powers or cutting edge personalities. And sometimes a writer has to do the unthinkable and cut down their cast. I did that a few weeks ago. I cut two characters from a MS I'm plotting. It didn't feel good but I'm hoping that weeding out characters will make others more prominent. It still leaves me with a group of six supporting characters that I have to breathe life into and make memorable.
   And still I think six is too many. I want to keep reducing the number but each and every one is essential to later books. It's a good thing I have you guys to throw ideas around with :) What do you think guys? How many characters is your absolute cut off number? Do too many characters put you off reading a book or is your motto the more the merrier?


  1. Interesting post. I personally don't think there is a right or wrong amount. The most important thing is, if it flows with your story well. If you feel your story absolutely needs six characters, than go for it. :)

    Thanks for stopping by,
    @ Livin' Life Through Books

  2. I was an only child for 9 years and let me say, your imagination is your best friend. Its probably why I'm such a loner now. I can have full blown conversations in my head and feel perfectly fine.

    In terms of the amount of characters, i dont think there's any good number. It's important to remember though that if you introduce them and nothing happens with them, they will be forgotten. Therefore, if in a later MS you want to bring them back, you should find a way of reminding the reader who they are so they're not confused. Everyone doesnt need this big deep role, as long as you understand that readers arent going to remember those people who dont currently serve a purpose.

  3. Lan, I do the same thing! I always, always add too many characters to my books. It's just that whenever you make a world, you come up with so many different characters that fit into it, and you have so many different back stories in mind that you want to use them all. :') I've had to go back and cut out so many characters from my cast and it still feels like too much to me too!

    But really, I don't think it matters so much if you use them the right way. (I hope) If you just throw them in with succession without developing them, then they blur together and are hard to remember. But if they're each easy to care about and are developed, then I actually LOVE having larger casts! Cassandra Clare and Sarah Cross and plenty other awesome authors do it, and I think you could pull it off too! :)

    Also, awesome supporting characters tend to be favourites, so how could I not love them? x)

    Another wonderful post, Lan! I hope you're having an amazing week :) <3

  4. Oh, this is a hard one. Having tons of characters in a book is always a bad thing...UNLESS they're very well written and memorable. I know people have issues with Stephen King but, say what you will, King knows how to create memorable, unique, individual characters. He can have hundreds and I'll remember them because each one has a very unique voice and personality that just worms its way into your head and makes you remember. So, yeah, what I'm trying to say is if your characters are not all just copies of each other than have as many as you want!

  5. Hmm. I'm not sure. I go with whatever my book needs to survive. I could probably make my MC have more siblings, or her friends have more siblings, but I generally keep it simple there. And I don't talk about neighbors or coworkers unless it bears relevance on the story. The more people I add, the less likely I am to remember who's who and to include them. I think six is good though. It's not too much or too little. It's manageable. When you go above that, the less likely I am to remember everyone and their story.

  6. It depends on how long your story is and how intricate your plot. I think you know when you have too many when characters appear for a scene and then aren't seen again until book 2 for no good reason.

    I think if you remember that each character needs to have a goal to achieve, something they dream about, you'll learn quickly that many of them are just pointless to have at all, or that you can combine two or more characters into one. Pointless characters don't want anything and you don't know them well enough to get inside their heads. And, you realize you don't even care to get to know them all that well.

  7. Love this post! I can completely relate to the entire first paragraph. I am one of five kids and I still have days where I wish my siblings imaginary although they're rare!

  8. Hmm. I LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE awesome supporting characters. I think there are room for as many of them as YOU feel is right, whether that's two, or fifteen. Though granted, the more you have going on, the more difficult it can be.

    When I'm writing, I try to go for a few, well-developed supporting characters - no more than four or five. I know that contradicts what I said up there, but I really do think it's YOUR decision. To me a book with a great MC is nothing without a few equally fabulous minor characters.

  9. This is a great post topic. I have to admit, I love large character casts. (The book I'm about to send you is packed with characters!) As a reader, the only time I get annoyed with a large cast is when they become a homogenous mass. As long as each character has his/her own personality, I don't care how many there are.

    That being said, I've also found myself having to cut beloved characters because they don't add anything to the story. Maybe that's the ultimate way to make the decision. If they don't advance the plot OR hinder they plot, ax 'em. OTherwise, flesh them out and make them shine! :) Good luck!

  10. Haha, I have five siblings and I had imaginary friends/adventures as far back as I can remember. I think I was trying to escape the siblings! (Although mostly we got along well and I loved having people to play with.)

    When I'm reading I don't really care about the number of characters. It honestly depends on the book and how well the characters are fleshed out. I would love to see more YA books with more supporting characters though. I'm kind of tired of protagonists with no friends. Hah. While saying that, though, I'm not sure I'm very good at creating a bunch of distinctive characters, so... yeah. I say whatever works for your story, do it! See how helpful I am? ;)

  11. I can totally relate to you on the multiple siblings thing :)

    I think in general I tend to be of the less is more philosophy when it comes to characters, because I like a TON of interior dialog and character development.

    But since I've read Eva Ibbotson (just in case I don't talk about her enough on my blog, I have to talk about her on yours too!), I've come to realize that sometimes having A LOT of characters can totally work. I mean, I think she has like 2 main characters, 5 or 6 major supporting characters, and then countless minor characters. And I think she pulls it off by 1) capturing their characters so succinctly and perfectly that you can't help remembering them, and 2) she doesn't force them to be more than they are--they're only in the scenes they need to be in and don't carry more weight with the story than necessary. They don't take over the story is what I guess I'm trying to say.

  12. You're right! Sometimes having too many characters in one book can be a bad thing, but if it's done right it can really enhance the overall story! I think that 6 characters is manageable as long as you make their personalities unique so that they are memorable in the reader's mind. I'm not going to lie...I read the first Harry Potter book so fast that I referred to Draco as "evil kid," Hagrid as "the giant" and Filch as "the creepy caretaker dude," but as the series went on (and I re-read the first book more slowly) all of these characters became memorable for their own reasons. I don't think what I'm trying to express makes long story short it sounds like you are on the right track!

  13. No, the more the better. But I like complicated intricate plots! Plus I am a lover of epic fantasy, and those books usually have a very large cast of important players. On the other hand if a side character adds nothing to the story it is best to weed it out. I do think on the other hand when you are writing, or plotting out a first draft it is best to hog tie your inner reviewer and throw her in a closet. Half the battle is just pounding it out, you can weed out the problems later.

    Beth ^_^


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