1. Porcupine
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    Porcupine Contributing Member

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    How many main characters kill a story?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Porcupine, Feb 14, 2011.

    Oh gosh, my first real thread here. :) I hope I am posting in the right place, and please forgive me if this debate has already been done before, but here goes anyway:

    How many main characters kill a story? That is, at what point does it become too confusing for the reader to follow all the characters around?

    While this is a general question, to give you some background, I am currently working on a story that involves four people travelling back in time and then interacting with people who were historically significant. It seems to me that four characters is not too much to work with, I have found that number to work well before. But in the story they obviously recruit helpers and acquire friends and partners, and this is where it begins to get difficult for me. I once read James Clavell's Whirlwind, which has (according to Wikipedia) 34 main characters and 50 minor characters. I was able to cope with them, but only just, and finished the book with my own brain quite in similar condition to a whirlwind itself. I wouldn't like to repeat that mistake.

    I am not too concerned with the historical characters. Most readers will know who they are and they will not add to the confusion too much, but with the nearly endless number of contacts and acquaintances made by the core characters.

    So, a related question is: what about characters you only need for one chapter, or even just part of a chapter. Should you name them, if the narrator is aware of their name or at least should be? Or just call them "the man in the black hat"?
     
  2. w176
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    w176 Contributing Member Contributor

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    More then the writer can handle. Sometimes it means 2, or even 1. Sometimes, like the case of GRR Martin, in means well at least 30.

    If you know you can handle 4 characters, zigzagging through time, go for it. But if it you first book, and you haven't been writing all that much (not even a million words yet) it probably a bad idea.
     
  3. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    It depends on your story, I tend to go for a largeish cast of characters but usually keep it down to one or two per chapter I only have a few with a lot of people in them.

    If you have Shakespeare or Dolly Parton's ability to introduce and round off a character in a few lines then it can work really well. If you can't do that just keep it to who you need.
     
  4. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    Just one can do it in some cases. :p
     
  5. Halcyon
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    Halcyon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Shakespeare or Dolly Parton?

    LOL!!!
     
  6. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    lol well yeah she has an exceptional ability to tell a story through song, she builds a character in a few lines, like Shakespeare in just a few words you have an image, background and reason to idenitify.

    You have to be a heartless beggar not to be affected by Little Andy, Joshua etc She is a genius :) and in my view right up there with Shakespeare with this.
     
  7. Halcyon
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    Halcyon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, Charlotte, I think that particular era in North America produced a few outstanding female singer songwriters, such as Joni Mitchell, Carole King etc, but I would never have listed Dolly Parton alongside them.

    However, each to his or her own. I was never huge on Shakespeare either to be honest, so we're all different. ;)
     
  8. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Like Mel's post indicates it is how the characters are written and what they achieve in the story that determines how many is too many.

    I'm a fan of both, I find them both witty and fun. For me in my writing they are who I look to when I am building a character - they are comparable with their ability and what I want to achieve. Even if you don't like Shakespeare and he is an acquired taste - his ability to draw a character with a line of dialogue is stunning, he brings in a character just for one line and you know enough about them to have an image. He can have a vast cast in his stories because of the images he creates, you don't get lost, because each is clear and distinct.

    Dolly Parton's songs are as deep and beautiful as Joni Mitchell etc, they have character, and tell stories. She is a highly intelligent woman and it comes out in her songs and her ability to market herself. Even amongst the country songs not many are as good with characters as she is. If she was to take her ability and turn it into novel writing, her stories would do the same as Shakespeare's and round out characters in a short piece, you get such a clear image. Her appreciation of a story comes from same source as many writer she reads a lot, and encourages others - her passion for story comes out everytime she is interviewed.
     
  9. Porcupine
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    Porcupine Contributing Member

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    Ok, thanks for your replies. So, if I am not mistaken, the general trend here appears to be that more characters are ok, if they are properly introduced and well handled.
     
  10. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    yes - as long as you make even the minor ones memorable and make sure they serve a purpose. I think when it starts to unravel is when there are characters for the sake of characters or to round out the story.
     
  11. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    "Oh no, in this epic game of twister I'm writing there isn't a person to sit with left hand on red!" *bing!* Mr Left-Hand-Red appears! "Now Mrs Right Hand Blue is blocked from putting her elbow on green! Excellent! This gives Both-Feet-On-Yellow his chance!" *story continues and Mr Left-Hand-Red stands there patiently wobbling for the rest of the game, until everyone else has fallen over, got bored and wandered off to get a drink. Someone switches off the light in the room.

    Mr L-H-R: "Er... guys? Hello?"
     
  12. Halcyon
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    Halcyon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Anyway, to address the actual question at the heart of the thread (rather than discuss the merits or demerits of Dolly Parton), my first novel had about seven major characters and a few minor ones, whilst the current one I'm working on, so far, is shaping up to have possibly a couple more than that, the main difference being that this one will have more than one bad guy.

    As a reader, I definitely prefer not to have too many characters to get to know (I'm currently struggling with Stephen King's Under The Dome for that very reason). But I guess that is where the skill of the author becomes important, in interweaving all these characters into a coherent story. I wouldn't be inclined to go for too many in a first novel, however.
     
  13. guamyankee
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    guamyankee Contributing Member

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    Son of a..... You just stole my next idea for a novel.

    Add epic twister game to the been done list...check.
     
  14. spklvr
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    spklvr Contributing Member Contributor

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    Although having many main characters can work well if you write well, I think it's also important to not have too many characters at once, at least not in the beginning of the story. Just focus on a few in each chapter. But don't underestimate the reader either. The only reader of the story I'm working on is both dyslexic and gets easily distracted by shiny objects, but she was never confused, even though I have a mountain of main characters (well... 18 at least).
     
  15. guamyankee
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    guamyankee Contributing Member

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    45 is the maximum number of characters the human mind can envelope. Its been proven. By scientists.
     
  16. Show
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    Write what you can handle. I tend to have some characters come and go over the course of the book but I usually have 3-5 "mains" and some more "Submains." But I try to keep it pretty manageable at any given point in the story. Although in my one, people die off so I replaced them with others(many of whom also died off xD).

    I say do what you can handle. It should come naturally.
     
  17. Porcupine
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    Porcupine Contributing Member

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    Ok, thanks very much for the feedback. I now have a pretty good idea how I am going to proceed with this!
     

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