How Many Characters Are Too Many?
Will too many make readers lose interest?
My critics told me my first novel had too many characters. My critique group said the same thing, and during the writing, I actually cut down on them! Even a good friend, who loved the story, told me she had to take character notes. So on book number two, I made sure that particular complaint wouldn’t happen again. Guess what? One person said even that book had too many.
Should authors worry about having too many characters? I write and read suspense. I have to agree that sometimes the use of large numbers of characters gets confusing. But it’s pretty hard to write good suspense or a good mystery with just a few characters. Remember the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series? Yikes! If there were ever books requiring the reader to take notes, those were the ones. A few of the names were even spelled very similarly. And that series was on the NYT bestseller list for years.
So I had to ask myself, what makes a tolerable character list for readers? Why will they accept dozens from some authors yet complain about too many from authors with 10 or twelve? Readers—we want to hear from you!
Here are some ways I’ve learned of to keep your reader abreast of your characters:
1. Do keep characters’ names different. Avoid names that sound alike, look alike or begin with the same letter.
2. If possible, introduce characters one at a time, with scenes in between the introductions. There’s nothing harder to follow than getting hit with an entire team of law personnel, for example, at the same time.
3. Try not to switch points-of-view within a scene. This is a basic “rule” of writing style, however, I’ve seen some famous writers breaking it when doing dialogue between two main characters. Unless you’re in their league, I’d stay away from it. It’s difficult to do it effectively without confusing the reader.
4. Find creative ways to remind the reader of who a character is and how he fits into the story when he or she hasn’t been mentioned for a while. Keep in mind every reader won’t be reading the book straight through and will need to have his/her memory refreshed.
5. Always be sure each character is necessary to your story. Characters, like words, may need to be cut if not relevant to the plot line.
As always, I’d love to hear from you. I hope some of you are enjoying spring! We’re still waiting for it here in upper Wisconsin. Amazingly, there are still ice-fishermen on the lake in front of my house, which I’ve heard is going to be a record breaker this year! They seem to be pulling a lot of fish out of the lake, while the eagles are circling, patiently waiting for their opportunity.
Have a wonderful week,