1. Bjørnar Munkerud
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    Bjørnar Munkerud Contributing Member

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    Number of characters

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Bjørnar Munkerud, Aug 18, 2012.

    Hello, people!

    I know it depends on a plethora of factors (and I want (you) to talk about /discuss some of them here) how many characters you can successfully include in a story.

    Obviously if your text is long you will probably have more characters. Also if your story takes place in the middle of nowhere you will most likely have few characters, whereas you will have many if it's about a travelling salesman who we follow in his encounters with all of his many customers. You get the idea.

    Here I will present my personal situation right now and ask you to share your thoughts on if you think I do things right and what can be fixed etc. I'm in no way finished, so I both have time for help and/or I will be settling down on something on my own eventually as well. Also don't expect me to think highly of every suggestion as I have quite a lot of opinions on how I'd like to do things myself and I'm not too sceptical of my strategies either ... anyway ...

    I intend the story to be at roughly/ at least 1000 pages. I currently have a little more than 300 "characters" kept in a list. I've never intended for them all to be included in the story. Some are never-mentioned parents or grandparents of appearing characters etc., who I usually make because 1. I originally intended them to be included 2. I might at some point decide they are to be included 3. They are important for backstories of other characters 4. I made them just for funsies. Of course I might be adding (and removing) characters as I go, but seeing as I literally have hundreds of characters to choose from, I can just pull "an unused one" from said vault.

    My story spans more than 60 years and has 4 main characters. Then there are girlsfriends and boyfriends etc. of these. And siblings, parents, children, friends, colleagues, enemies etc. 30 end up being murdered by a serial killer / mass murderer, and at least another 10 get murdered by various people later. The organisation two of the main characters are in has 81 members, most of whom aren't mentioned, but still. And then there are those giants they are investigating who add another 20 or so characters to the list. An then there are a few random people they meet here and there for different reasons.

    I have made a list of the possibly 23 most important characters, who I will "focus on" to varying degrees (this might sound like much, but the amount of focus varies greatly, as you might understand from my following clarification/explanation). These are the main main character, his girlfriend, 7 others with superpowers, 2 nemesises to two of these people, the main main character's 2 brothers, the main main character's 2 children, the main characters' 2 parents, 5 colleagues of the main main character and his girlfriend's adoptive father.

    I would greatly appreciate advice on how to make this work, yes you heard me right. How much can/should I focus on each character? How can I make this work? Lastly I'll just inform you that, as I said, there are four main characters, all of which we follow some part of the story, though one of them has the majority of the time for himself, and there are also three narrators, and, again, one of them is narrator much longer than the others combined.

    I know this all seems very much and confusing, but 1. that's just how complicated it is (for me) to explain these things 2. it's supposed to be this complex, and 3. it all makes sense in context.
     
  2. DanesDarkLand
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    DanesDarkLand Senior Member

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    Characters and the limits are up to the story. Yeah, that sounds like a cop out, but it truly isn't. Each character has to add something to the story, whether it is just a detail, or actual action and story development. If they are nothing more then a "Hey, this guy named Barry is standing by the door doing nothing and adding nothing to my story." Then he's pretty useless. Your story, what you want to tell to people, and how it adds to the overall feel, that is your limit. A main character may not even need his parents mentioned, as we all have them, unless they add to the story. How that clarifies things somewhat.
     
  3. Bjørnar Munkerud
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    Bjørnar Munkerud Contributing Member

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    Ah, yes, thank you very much, you managed to structure my thoughts so very nicely. :)
     
  4. marktx
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    marktx Contributing Member

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    That's a lot of people.

    A couple of thoughts...

    (1) If you find that two or more people are behaving in essentially the same way and performing essentially the same purpose, you may want to consider collapsing them into one character.

    (2) If the characters are functioning as walk-ons/bit-parts/spear-carriers, don't name them. Instead simply refer to them by the parts they are playing.

    (3) If the characters are serving as secondary characters, create some sharp visual, verbal, or behavioral shorthand that helps prevent the reader from losing track of who's who.

    I personally tend to keep my casts pretty small--but then again, I'm not writing over an epic 60-year time-span. But even in my smaller world and shorter timeframe, I am finding that I have to create distinctive cues to to keep the less-important characters from blurring together. As certain characters step on the stage and flesh out their internal lives, those cues become less important, and the character's name becomes cemented to the character. But until that happens, the surface cues are important.
     
  5. Yoshiko
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    Yoshiko Contributing Member Contributor

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    My first thought on reading your post was this: if you have so many characters that you need to keep a list then you have too many. You want your reader to be able to remember all your characters, right? You can't expect them to be able to do that when you, the writer, cannot.

    It sounds to me as if you've gone about this the wrong way. Making characters in advance is likely to hinder your story because you'll feel more obliged to use them on the grounds that you put the time and effort needed into creating them - giving you some form of attachment to them. A wiser move would be not to make characters in advance: create them as and when you need them instead. That way you won't have "extra" characters - you'll only have as many as you need to get your story across.
     
  6. Bjørnar Munkerud
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    Bjørnar Munkerud Contributing Member

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    That last point of yours is one of the issues I need to get past, you're right, Yoshiko, but I'm in control; I'm aware of it (and that should suffice).

    I have to let you know that I started writing this just over a year ago (I study and do not intend to finish anytime soon (neither with studying nor this project), my time and the project's size prohibit me from it, but there's luckily no real reason for me to hurry either) and in that one year I have created many names, no more than 20% that are yet distinctive characters with any attached information to them, and only 23 have yet to appear in any of the material I've written. As I said, characters such as the 40 or so who get murdered up that number drastically, and, as the utter completist I am, I have already fully named them.

    And now to clarify the "need to keep a list because I don't remember" thing. The list is currently 14 pages long (it will probably get shorter if anything as time goes by) full of characters with between 1 and 4 names. Yes, it's true, I don't remember them all. That'd be madness, but I do remember a significant amount. Some will be further developed, some might be removed, some may be combined etc.

    I can name 30-60 characters, correctly remembering the spelling of each of their two or four names and their roles in the story, out of the top of my head right now. I also hate the idea of waking up one day and having forgotten that one thing about that one character: I'm a structured perfectionist with huge amounts of motivation and time on my hands. Most importantly the document has so much more information other than just names: there are notes on family relations, who goes to school with who, places people are from, the reason I named them that, where they are from, what they are known for doing, what their nicknames are, how old they are, what they look like, what sex they are, if they are good or bad, if they are magical or not etc.

    Plus, the document also serves as a temporal place for names I like. If I come across/ to think of a name I like I'll add it there and, maybe, I'll swap it with one I think is worse.

    The list's basically a nice place to add and gather information. I know it takes a lot out of my time, but 1. I don't care, 2. I actually enjoy it, 3. I'm not in a hurry, 4. I do not intend to do the bulk of my actual writing now while I'm still a student and 5. I would do other, even less useful stuff if I didn't do this (like playing computer games, and then I'd get bored of playing compuer games that much, and then I'd have a vicious circle). Thirdly, again, : everything's under control. I will not add unnecessary characters and will not let unimportant characters get much focus.

    Oh, and I sincerely do love your feedback, I just feel like doing some clarifying rambling every once in a while, that's all. :p
    I do not want to be or sound harsh or full of myself.
    Feedback of any kind is welcome.
    I know my posts tend to be really long, I'm working on it (as well as my use of the comma, semicolon and paranthesis etc., lol, but that's a forum-posting issue, not one present in the novels I'm writing).
    Cheers. :)
     

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