Bird Face Wendy

Things relevant to reading, writing, publishing or marketing teen fiction.

How Many Characters Are Too Many?

on January 17, 2016
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I recently picked up a novel with a roster of characters listed in front. It seemed like a lot of characters even for a thriller, so I did some math.

Based on the number of pages, a new character would be introduced on average every 7.4 pages. That seemed like a lot of characters to keep track of.

So I discarded the book and moved on to another novel. Did I do the right thing?

Possibly. I began to wonder if all the characters named by the author played an important role in the story. What if some of them were mentioned only once and didn’t need a name? I suspected such when reading their descriptions. Or maybe they were necessary for only one chapter, to reveal something important about another character.

I can think of characters like that in my books. For one, the policeman who came to the classroom when Tookie collapsed. My first publisher had me give him a name; my second publisher probably would’ve preferred I delete the name. Now I wish I had.

I don’t believe I want to provide a character roster for any of my novels, and I suspect the thriller author may have done his story a disservice by having one. When reading a good story that is well-written, I haven’t found the need for knowing characters’ names in advance, unless they are foreign-language names I might easily confuse. And that has happened.

Does the proportion of characters to novel length matter to you? Do you prefer that an author list the character names and roles in the front of the book or not?

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14 responses to “How Many Characters Are Too Many?

  1. Tiegan says:

    I’ve never seen a book like this!

    The author is only pointing out a flaw in his or her book if they have to actually provide a character list.

    I like a book with a limited number of characters, because it means there is more time to focus on developing each of them.

  2. I’ve thought about listing the characters in the front of my book. I know that at times I’ve forgotten who was who while reading a novel, even when the story was very interesting. This is a good question. If you get a lot of responses about listing the names in the book, I’ll have to think about it.

    For what it is worth, I have liked having them listed with a line or two reminding me of the relationship in the story, but then I wondered if it gives away some of the information before it should have been given.

    Confusing, right?

    • Yes. Deciding whether to include a character roster and how much information it might disclose about each character should be given careful thought when you’re writing a novel. (Like many things.) 🙂

  3. I really think it depends on the book/story.

    • So true, Laissez Faire. I’ve seen some novels where perhaps the author thought it the correct thing to do, perhaps after seeing it done elsewhere. But better to think about if it’s the right thing for that particular book.

  4. amymbennett says:

    Agatha Christie used to do this frequently. Many times she also added a brief description of what the character’s role was in the story (“Mary Jones–a housemaid who had a bad habit of eavesdropping on the private conversations of her betters”.) It’s a quaint, rather outdated thing that was more common in mystery fiction when it was considered more like a puzzle to be solved rather than a story to be enjoyed.

    • Interesting! I’ve probably read only one Agatha Christie mystery in my life and don’t remember that. Today that seems to give away too much information. I’d rather find out about the housemaid’s habit on my own. Thanks for commenting, Amy!

  5. I don’t care for character rosters. If they’re at the beginning, they’re meaningless to me because I have no clue as to who they are yet or their importance. I struggle with huge casts of characters, especially if they have odd, unpronounceable names. I tried reading a best-selling book that had not only a huge group of characters, but at last count when I stopped reading fairly early on, there had been 14 separate points of view.

    • Oh, no! Too many POVs is a pet peeve of mine. When I read a novel with multiple POVs, I always analyze it to determine if the story could have been as easily–or better–told through a single POV or perhaps two. Thanks, Carolyn.

  6. I can maybe see something like that being wise as a series progresses or maybe if a lot of ground is covered in a story. You know, they spend 6 chapters in town and then set out on a journey and toward the end they come back home and you’ve forgotten the name of someone important left back home. But it really depends on the book. Most of the time, if you need a list to keep track of characters, then you have too many, imo. I dropped Game of Thrones halfway through the first book but that’s a series that probably has and needs a list. But also one of the reasons I dropped it – too many characters for me to really care about any of them. (Not to mention most were so dis-likable anyway!)

    • Hi, Sparks. I can always count on you to give an issue deep thought. In a series where characters can be forgotten from one book to another, a list would be helpful. And like you, I can only truly care about a handful of new characters. Beyond that, they’re just names on a page.

      • Me and my brain – always thinking, thinking, thinking. 😉
        I remember reading somewhere, too, that naming a character is a sign to the reader that a character is important. It’s saying, “hey, this person is important enough to need a name. Remember them!” So if they aren’t important, the writer is almost tricking the readers and filling their brains trying to remember trivial characters.

        I also tend to think sometimes, if a story is starting to have too many characters, it might be wise for the author to consider if a few of them could be merged. Oh, but one example of a book with a lot of characters, that got slightly confusing (so a list at the back, not the front, would have been nice) but I loved would be Night Circus.

      • I’d also heard that naming a character implies importance to the story.

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