Prolific Characters

It may just be me, but I think we have a few too many toothbrushes in our house.  Nineteen for six people seems excessive.  Granted we have three bathrooms, allowing one to argue that six toothbrushes in three bathrooms is okay.  You know, on the off chance that a chopper-scrubbing emergency might occur anywhere in the home.  Something like a displaced popcorn hull that could be fatal unless removed in 2.2 seconds in the nearest bathroom.  Quick, no time to run upstairs.  Our speed and agility might be the difference between a family of six and a much smaller fam of five.  Thank our toothbrush hoarding foresight for warding off that disaster.

I can’t imagine a time when I would need to brush my teeth in any room besides my own bathroom.  And, quite honestly, neither can my kids.  All four of them brush their teeth in the master bathroom.  Hence, one bathroom times six people equals thirteen toothbrushes too many. 

How did we collect so many?  I honestly don’t know. 

But I do know that peripheral characters in a novel can proliferate as easily as excess toothbrushes.  As writers, we tend to add characters willy-nilly.  The grocery store clerk debuts in chapter three.  The ice cream man stops by in four and seven.  The teacher arrives on time for chapter one, but is truant until the finale. 

But, we might argue, somebody needs to give our MC her change after bagging her much needed groceries.  Someone needs to throw the protag off the trail and the ice cream man is the perfect combination of smooth and cool.  The teacher helps solve the crime.

My answer.  Too many toothbrushes.

When our novels have too many characters, readers can lose interest.  It’s hard to split our time, attention and loyalties between too much of anything.  For younger readers, it can be a simple matter of character overload.  They become confused and can’t effectively keep the names straight.  Once the door of discontent opens, the covers of a book close. 

Middle grade and YA readers can tolerate more named characters than the youngest readers, but they still want a small enough cast to care about each character.  Even a little bit.  Remember that grocery store clerk?  If he has a name and a description, someone might walk away mighty upset that his only role was to bag canned goods.  The teacher?  Heck, even I have trouble remembering a character fourteen chapters later.  The impact on the reader will be non-existent. 

Even adults (or it just may be me) hate when characters flutter in and out of novels, but don’t really have any meaning.  It’s a waste of time to describe a character who has no impact on the story. 

So how many is too many?

I searched endlessy to find the correct answer.  Alas, Google doesn’t seem to know either.  I then turned to my bookshelves hoping for some clear cut resolution to pass on to you.  Again, I had no resolution.  My findings indicated anything from one MC to dozens of characters  is okay–picture books included. 

  1. Middly Grade Hatchet by Gary Paulson.  One MC.  A handful of peripherals.
  2. Picture book Donna O’Neeshuck Was Chased by Some Cows by Bill Grossman.  One MC and dozens of farm animals, a boy on a bike, town’s people, etc..
  3. Chapter book Roscoe Riley Rules #1: Never Glue Your Friends to Chairs by Katherine Applegate.  One MC and a dozen or so peripherals. 
  4. YA Graceling by Kristin Cashore.  One MC.  Peripherals: too many to count.
  5. Adult fiction Thr3e by Ted Dekker.  One MC with a strong support character and antagonist.  A small handful of peripherals.

This tiny sampling shows there is no definitive answer to the number of characters a book should have.   And so, as I have nothing concrete to pass along to you, I will provide you with my perception after being an avid reader and writer for many long  years.  Sorry I can’t be more informed, but here it goes:   

Get rid of the characters you don’t really need.  Often times we can roll several incidental characters into one.  This new creation can be fleshed out and have an impact on the story.  Maybe the ice cream guy and the grocery clerk are one person.  This makes the red herring premise even more realistic if he seems to “show up” everywhere. 

The teacher?  I suspect she could also show up in a few more chapters at key points.  For instance, behind the MC in the grocery line.  Even if she doesn’t say anything, she can witness something small and make her heroic effort at the end more plausible. 

Be judicious in naming your characters.  Not everyone needs a name, a title and a description.  If they are nothing but a warm body in case of a popcorn hull emergency, they don’t need a prominent place in your novel.  If you indtroduce them, they will become important for that simple fact.  If they’re not important, don’t name them.  Or better yet, throw them out when you clean up the bathroom edit your manuscript.

I apologize for asking a question I can’t rightfully answer.  Each manuscript is different in scope and depth.  Some may require a large cast while others work well with a mere handful.  It is up to you to determine if characters can be combined or cut completely.  Only you know if they are essential to the outcome of the story.

I’m off to purge my home of extra toothbrushes.  Gotta make room for the new ones!

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12 responses to “Prolific Characters

  1. That’s hilarious. I can totally see a toothbrush emergency emerging.

    I blame dentists. You go there and they give you another toothbrush. Then you see them on sale and you buy some and before you know it, you have a whole closet full of ’em. Or bathroom.

    My current WIP has quite a few characters. It’s a little alarming actually. I gave them all a sticky note the other day and laid them out so I can connect them to each other more in the next draft. I didn’t count them. I didn’t want to know. To make it that much worse… they don’t have names. Oh Lordy! At least readers don’t have to worry about keeping names straight. har, har.

    But yes, what is too many? I suppose it comes down to how much attention you give them. If you give some a lot of attention, but they only have a few lines in one scene, well then… you are possibly wasting the reader’s neurons on details that don’t matter.

    And we all know, I could use a few more neurons these days. Save the reader, use few characters!

    • Jean,

      Don’t fret. I don’t have a clue how many toothbrushes characters are in any of my stories. I just write them as they need to be written. If I think hard, I might say one of my chapter books has enough characters to sustain fourteen full length novels. Because of this, I actually think it would make a great play and I’ve kind of tinkered with adaptations a little.

      On the other hand, my NaNo novel has less than ten real characters.

      I don’t know if there is a wrong or right answer to my question. I couldn’t find anything that clearly stated character number guidelines and my quick book shelf check showed nothing conclusive either. I guess we’ll plod along, doing what we are doing, until someone tells us otherwise!

  2. I think it also depends on how long the novel is. The Mortal Instruments trilogy, for example, has a LOT of characters, but the author sort of lets you get inside their heads one at a time over the course of the huge story. These are long novels, so there’s more time to get to know people.

    In my current WIP, I have two POV characters, and their love interests are important but don’t get a “voice” in the narrative. I think it’s working pretty well because they each have access to parts of the story that the reader needs. But I’m still debating about the second and third book in the trilogy, because I’m going to need to introduce at least one more POV character, possibly two. It will be an interesting challenge.

    So the answer to the question? I dunno. I guess you just look at each character and ask yourself if some other character could fill the same hole just as easily. Sometimes you will find that a character you’ve already got can do it better. Other times not so much. I am asking myself that question right now about a couple of characters who are highly entertaining, but only show up twice in the story . . .

    Wow, that was a non-answer with a really high word count. You’d think it was still November! I’ll be curious to read other people’s thoughts on the subject.

    • Michelle,

      Good point on the trilogy thing. I think a longer piece has the luxury of more fully fleshing out multiple characters, while giving the reader time to mentally digest the info and welcome the characters as they read.

  3. I find in my books, I have many characters. They usually break down in the following ways..
    2 MCs (one male, one female)
    1-2 villains
    5 – ish Secondary characters
    10-15 Bit characters.

    Now I know you are asking “Why so many bit players?” Because my world needs them.
    For my last NaNo, I have 2 mcs, 1 villain, 5 Secondary (many of these are similar from story to story), and I have the problematic father, the jealous ex-girlfriend, the bosses, the minions of the bad guys, friends of the heroine… etc.

    Why? I try to give readers a ‘real world’ feel. Think of how many people you come in contact with in your daily life (on-line and off).

    The number will surprise you.

    I tone it down a bit for my characters, BUT each bit player has a role.
    Whether it’s to learn something about the mc’s past, or as a goad to twist the mc’s angst a bit further, or even to motivate the mc.

    Looking back at all of my stories, I don’t have less than 10 total characters in any of them. This could also be part of my quirk as an author though.

    So here is the piece of ‘sage’ advice I’ll give..
    Just as there are different ways to write and edit, there are different numbers of characters needed in your story. It is up to YOU to figure out which number works best.

    Apparently mine is between 15-20 😛

    • Steph,

      I’ve read some of your work and you introduce characters with ease. You never throw a gazillion names into a page and expect readers to wrap their brains around it. Also, with fantasy, sci-fi and paranormal, I think there has to be more characters as a general rule. It helps us better understand the rules of the new world.

      Good point: Each writer has a different style, as every novel requires something a little different as well. It’s probably what makes reading so fun.

  4. Love the toothbrush analogy 🙂

    In the ms I’ve completed, I think I may have too many peripheral characters. In the one I’m writing now, I have very few. Can you say overcompensation??? 🙂

    • Jemi,

      Maybe this story doesn’t need as many? Each story unfolds so differently, that to try to “copy” another would stiffle the creativity. My characters just show up and stick around when I write. I’m guessing yours just didn’t require as many this time around.

  5. Hi Cat! I “tagged” you over at my blog. If you don’t have time, don’t worry, it’s just for fun 🙂

  6. Hi Cat,

    Picked up your blog link from Jemi’s and thought I’d pay a visit. This is quite a creative comparison…toothbrushes to characters. I definitely have too many toothbrushes but I’m sparser with my characters. Too many can be confusing and once you’ve given them a name, you’re lost!

    Oh…and those extra toothbrushes are excellent for cleaning out cracks along your windows and screens and perfect for detail work when stripping antiques.

    Sigh…that is what I did in a prior life when I had time for things like making candles and homemade egg nog.

    Great blog!

    • Yvonne,

      LOL! Nothing about my brain is linear. I can (and do) connect things that have no right to be compared. Perhaps that’s why I write for kids.

      Like yours, our retired toothbrushes have been commissioned for part time work elsewhere around the house. There is nothing a determined toothbrush can’t accomplish.

      Your comment about naming characters is so true. Once we give them the time/respect of their own name, they become something bigger and demand more. Too many can easily muddle a story.

      Thanks for stopping by.

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