The Reader Writes: Too Many Characters?

So one of my blog readers recently dropped the following query into my inbox (slightly edited for brevity).

cowboy and gun

“Whaddya think? Should I off Grandpa Cowboy?”

I’m working on a traditional western set in the 1800s. At present, I’m working on the characters. I have a list of several dozen characters. Everyone thinks that’s too many characters for a first novel. I don’t.Would I not need to create the town? I plan on drawing up a map for the town in the novel. Any thoughts or suggestions?

Reader, great question!

The first thing that comes to my mind is, who is ‘Everyone’? Your family and friends who are not writers and who have no idea how to write a book? Or your fellow writers whom you’ve polled for their input/feedback? Unless the people you’re asking are avid (and skilled) readers or writers, I probably wouldn’t worry too much about any naysaying.

Second, I’m assuming that not all of these characters are going to be main characters, but that the majority of them will be minor characters:  the clerk at the general store, the ladies of ill repute at the local Saloon, and so on. Characters who get a mention or two but don’t play a starring role in the story. It’s perfectly okay to give these folks names, faces, and identities. You’re absolutely right, you’re creating a whole town, and all of the people in any town on the planet have names, jobs, and personalities. It would be way more odd if you didn’t name them, in my opinion, not to mention awkward: “Mary went into the store and said hello to the clerk, a man she saw every day but never called by his name.” Um, no. In our own minds when we’re moving through life, we attach names to many (if not most) of the people we interact with. Me, I even make a point of looking at the name tags of waiters, cashiers, and other service folks with whom I’ll only be interacting briefly (even if I may never see them again).

I apply this same idea to writing:  when I’m writing and a new character comes on the scene (even a minor one), I describe that person as if I were meeting/noticing him for the first time in real life (name? what does he/she look like? clothes? anything that stands out? anyone he/she reminds me of?). I classify people like this in daily life, and it seems normal to me to do that in writing, too. Not only does it help the reader understand the types of people populating your town, it also gives insight into your narrator’s mind (and can provide a great vehicle for humor, too…what’s funnier than describing an oddball character?).

Do I do this for all the characters in the book? No. Sometimes I might just sum up a plain-Jane kind of character in a sentence or two. “A young lady carrying a parasol approached, eyeing the cloudy sky with trepidation, and hurried by, brushing the bustle of her dress against me as she squeezed past on the narrow-planked walkway.” In a case like this, it isn’t the character that is important, but what else is going on in the sentence:  a storm is approaching. This sentence also gives more of an idea of the setting (both location and time period) through the details. Don’t get bogged down in describing characters like this minutely if it’s going to detract from the real point you’re trying to make (in this case, that a storm is coming).*

Remember:  there should always be a reason for describing a character in detail. If the character in question is not a main character, ask yourself what the description conveys to the reader: does it illuminate the narrator’s mind or tastes? add a touch of humor? help establish the setting? create foreshadowing for a time later in the book when this (seemingly minor) character suddenly bursts onto the scene in some unexpected manner? Unless there’s a reason for a description, consider leaving (most of) it out. I would advise against using character descriptions simply to pad your word count or make a thin chapter longer. Of course, we don’t want to skimp on characterization, but we also don’t want to waste the reader’s time with descriptions that serve no purpose.

On the other hand, if you’re planning to have an EPIC cast, with each and every one of those dozens of characters playing an important role in your story, that might be a bit of a big mouthful to bite off, yes. In a case like this, you’ll need to pay very careful attention to your plotting to make sure that characters don’t appear or disappear without explanation (it can be easy to lose track of characters in works of large scope), to keep tabs on which characters know each other and how (and to make sure they’re interacting within the relationship bounds you initially set up for them), and so on. It can also be difficult to give each character from a broad cast his or her own unique voice; many characters may end up sounding exactly like the others unless you have a firm idea in your mind of how each one is individual and has a unique style of speech, dress, action, and so on.

Another very important consideration is the reader. Is this book going to be too much work for the reader to bother with? I’ll be honest, unless a book with a huge cast of characters is written exceptionally well (see George R.R. Martin), I probably won’t struggle through it if I can’t figure out who’s who. If this book is supposed to be an ‘easy read’ for the audience, fewer characters is probably better. But if you’re setting up the book with the expectation that yes, the reader will need to learn all these characters, but the reward in the end will be worth the effort, then that’s another expectation entirely. It all depends on what you think you (as the author) can handle. If you were inviting friends over for brunch, would you make a simple, crowd-pleasing frittata that is relatively easy to whip up, or would you pull out all the stops and serve up a veritable buffet of delicacies that would require a lot more prep work on your end (but may truly dazzle your guests if you do it well)? If you do decide to move forward with a robust cast of major characters, it’s a good idea to have a reference for readers at the beginning of the book (a list of characters, as found at the beginning of each of Shakespeare’s plays, for example).

Hmm…does any of that answer your question? If you’re still unclear about the number of characters to include, I suggest doing a search on the phrase “how many characters is too many in a novel?” There are scads of discussions on this topic, so you may find further helpful advice there.

Good luck!


*resisting temptation to make “Winter is coming” joke here. <<GOT geek alert>>

Image: Country & Western Gentleman (c) Michelle Jones, some rights reserved


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