How Many Characters Are Too Many?
Will using too many make readers lose interest?
Some critics complained that my first novel had too many characters. Even a good friend, who loved the story, told me she had to take character notes as she was reading to keep all of them straight. So when I wrote my next book, I used a lot fewer characters to make sure that particular complaint wouldn’t happen again. Guess what? There were reviewers who said even that book had too many. Every reader has his own tolerance level.
How important is it for authors to worry about having too many characters?
I write and read suspense. As a reader, I have to agree that sometimes the use of large numbers of characters gets confusing. But it’s hard to write good suspense or a good thriller with just a few characters. Remember The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo trilogy? 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 what makes a tolerable character list for readers? And why will readers 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 to keep your reader abreast of your characters:
1. Do keep characters’ names different. Avoid names that sound alike, look alike or even 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, 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 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 or her memory refreshed.
5. Always be sure each character is necessary to your story. Characters, like words, need to be cut if not relevant to the plot line.
I hope you are enjoying our early spring. The ice went out early here in NW Wisconsin and the temperature has been above normal. The boats are out on the lake, the trees are budding, and the eagles are circling. Summer will be here soon.
For the last three months I’ve been recovering from hip surgery and have been doing a lot of reading, which has inspired me to repeat this blog on numbers of characters in a book, so my apologies to anyone who remembers it. But, of course, most valuable advice bears repeating.
Have a wonderful week,