Friday, May 27, 2011

Greyhaus Guest Blogger - How Many Characters Is Enough?

Stephanie really nails this one! I think what she is saying about characters is something that really applies to all of the elements of writing a novel. We don't follow rules, so to speak, but we make sure to ask if it is really necessary to the story. I know that I frequently will work with an author and have them hack characters and scenes from the book. Sure they fight and complain but I alway return to the same issue Stephanie brings up. Is it really necessary. Honestly, this is a great way to cut back on word count in some of your stories!

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How many characters does it take to make a good book? I’ve tried to read my way through this question for about a year now with not much success. I’ve tried to glean an answer from stories I’ve written in the past. Combing through the wisdom imparted by published authors has given me great insight just not on this particular subject I went in search of. This question presented at seminars has left me wanting.

Trying to answer my own question I ponder on the protagonist, the antagonist, the supporting character or two, and minor characters that reveal the plot. So it might depend on how many plot lines, how many problems or how much trouble I want my main character to get into. So, I thought, no less than four characters? I've also read about a protagonist being the antagonist fighting the trouble in his own head. That would technically be one. Back around to that same question again.

What I found is whether you have one or twenty characters they all have to have a reason to be there. But how do you know if they need to be there? I put my “crazy” hat on one day and asked my characters "If you were never born, how would the story change?" The ones that cough or stutter are out. If they don't have an immediate response, except for those characters that stutter as a regular means of communication, they're slashed.

I find this is also a good exercise to take out a character to see how the story flows. It strengthens my main character as he has to "find another way" out of the labyrinth. Sometimes I come up with good stuff. Other times I see a weakness in my writing. On rare occasions I see the true-life motive for my seemingly unconscious mind striving to work out a real-life problem.

When I'm done torturing my characters and they can have their scene back (or many times display the new torture scene) I'm left with my answer. How many characters does it take to make a good book? All of them. (All those left that is.)


  1. I think the key is to make sure you introduce them in a way that doesn't overwhelm the reader. I've read some writer's manuscripts where there are so many characters to start, you get overwhelmed. And also, as long as each character plays a purpose.

  2. Good post and one I'll remember. Characters clamored to reach my written pages and it's been a struggle to learn this lesson. And probably still learning!

  3. *Squee* Thanks to Scott Eagan for posting this. I do hope it helps others know that it's okay to scratch out a character (when they're not necessary and sometimes when they are). It helps my writing!

  4. Part of the fun of writing is the appearance of characters where you least expect them. They arrive fully formed in some cases and have to be managed. If they serve a purpose and channel the story in the direction it has to go, they can stay. If not, they end up either on the cutting room floor or get their own book.