1. zilly
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    zilly Senior Member

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    Too many minor characters

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by zilly, Sep 21, 2010.

    Arguably, too many characters in a storyline is often times the biggest downfall to a story, in my opinion. How do you feel about this?

    I feel like everyone knows that three to six main characters are pretty good for a novel length story, but I don't know of any minor character rule to follow. To me, too many minor characters in a storyline is almost as bad as too many major characters. When there are too many minor characters, I often forget who they are and if they're of any significance and soon they all seem to be a waste.

    I ask because I have a story where there are three major characters, but there are also three additional characters that are pretty significant. Then there are four other characters that don't do much but are mentioned quite frequently. Finally, there are ten other characters each of which are mentioned only in a single chapter.

    So, in one way, I feel like there are only three major characters (five maximum) and that's nothing to worry about. But, I also feel like I have ten somewhat important characters in a short novel (70k words) and that's too many.

    What do you think?

    Thanks,
     
  2. Blips
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    Blips Member

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    I just finished reading Under The Dome which had about 33+ active characters in it from start to finish (roughly speaking).

    Every time a new character was introduced I tried to commit their name / standing / etc to memory but it was a bit of a chore. It made the book a bit difficult to follow at times but also made the setting feel alive and busy.

    If you are going to have many characters try and relate them to one another as closely as possible instead of creating a large batch of isolated characters that are all busy doing something separate.
     
  3. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have one main character that over 50,000 words has conversations or listens to conversations of about 24 human characters has a wolf, a horse and a cat. Several others are mentioned. They have degrees of how much interaction they have with the MC so far keeping track of the character hasn't been something people have complained about.

    In my next book my cast list is much smaller 3 main characters and probably meet about 10 others. It is what the story needs

    If you story needs characters put them - take out the ones it doesn't need or you can't give a distinctive personality to.
     
  4. Evelyanin
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    Evelyanin Senior Member

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    There is not a certain set amount to work by. You could have a million minor characters in your story and it still would not matter as long as each of these characters is essential to the plot of the story.

    Look at it this way. Your story starts somewhere and it ends somewhere. It involves some main characters who have to get from point A to point B. Along the way they are going to encounter some resistance. They are also going to encounter some people who help them get to point B. Not all of these characters are going to be 'good' per se, but they will (should) all be vital to the plot. It could be encountering a beggar, which turns into the MC going into a certain alley that is vital to the plot. The beggar himself may be oblivious to whats going on, and may resume his life not knowing any better, but without him, the MC would never have entered that special alley.

    Treat your characters like your friends. The more time you spend with them, the more you should know about them. Mr. Smith doesn't need a subplot if he is a clerk at the local grocery store and his only role is handing MC a bag of potatoes. He probably doesn't need a name either. However, it's nice to get to know Jane a little better if she is the MC's sister, and provides a lot of support during the story. Yet even Jane doesn't really need a subplot.

    Go through your minor characters and look at each individually. If you take someone out, will the ending be different? Can Tom's small role be taken on by James instead? You wouldn't add a scene involving the MC making chocolate chip cookies unless it was relevent to the story. Likewise, if a character isn't relevent, it would be best to just leave them out.
     
  5. zilly
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    zilly Senior Member

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    I'm not a fan of King for this reason and others, to be honest.

    Anyway, there are two major groups of characters. One with three and the other with two and the remaining somewhat major character intermingles between the two.

    The other four characters are mentioned frequently by the narrator, but they aren't really part of the plot.
     
  6. Show
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    Show Contributing Member Contributor

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    I dont think too many minor characters is ever really a problem. It's the quality of the characters, not the quantity. While too many minor characters can decrease quality, it's not totally undoable to make many minor characters relevant, especially if their role is very limited.
     
  7. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    Urk, minor characters. I like everyone to be important, so no one should be mentioned just once. Even if they only get mentioned once again as a joke, or something, it makes their existence in the previous scene a lot more worthwhile. I tend to end up squidging minor characters down so a cast of thousands is only hundreds, figuratively. It's nothing to do with keeping track of them - just making sure they all have a lasting task to do. They can't just sell the guy a drink - they have to make a comment that follows him all day and ends up being the repeated words in the back of his mind all night.

    I feel if even the most minor character has a contribution, they shouldn't be hard to keep track of, because then they aren't the guy with the hair, but the guy who did this that or the other, and that's still with the main character. I hate just filling a room with people who won't happen again and only brush past the main character. I tend to go for shapeless blob people - even down to describing them as such in narration - than actually describing anyone who doesn't affect the MC.
     
  8. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    If you have too many minor characters, make some of them over 18 years old. :D

    Seriously, though, there are two kinds of minor characters. There are some who appear in one or two scenes, make the necessary plot deflections, and depart. Then there are the ones who appear frequently (the main character's lazy coworker who keeps complicating things for him at work, the HR coordinator who wanders around rating all the employee's efficiencies, the cute bartender where the main character goes after work on Fridays - she has the hots for him, the guy next door who knows the MC's secrets almost before he does...).

    The former aren't a problem. The reader can forget them when they leave the scene, and no biggie. But the others can get out of hand, because the reader has to think back to remember who this person is. So each persistent minor character needs to make a strong enough impression that the reader can keep track.

    How many you can get away with is largely a matter of how skillful the writer is at making each one distinct in the reader's mind.

    King's Under the Tome is an excellent example of a self-indulgent author lining up an excessively large mob of minor characters for the reader to try to keep straight. It's a tangle mess of subplots in King's own version of Lord of the Flies: Cut off a group of characters from civilization and watch them disintegrate into savagery and depravity.
     
  9. zilly
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    zilly Senior Member

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    This is the thinking that I usually have. However, I'm always worried about going overboard, but, at the same time, I hate having characters that aren't really important. It's such a struggle for me to get to the point that I'm happy.

    This is the conclusion that I started to reach as I made this post. Fortunately, there are only ten characters that are mentioned with any frequency. The rest of the characters are just in a single chapter. And, after thinking about a lot of the short stories that I like, I realized that they all have around six characters that are mentioned a good bit. So, I don't think ten is a problem for a full length novel.

    However, while on the subject, what are your thoughts on characters that are mentioned a lot but are never really described with any detail? I usually don't like to read a character description for over a few sentences, so, unless the character is very important, I usually just let the story describe him.

    Do you like stories like this or not?

    Thanks,
     
  10. TobiasJames
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    TobiasJames Contributing Member

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    In my latest book, there are 55 characters who are mentioned by name, 42 of whom we actually ever meet and just 28 that have a speaking part. Of those 28, just under half only appear once in the story and so don't really need to be memorised.

    (Too many numbers? hehe)

    This leaves me with 15 characters who speak "regularly", of which 8 are fully-developed characters including 4 POV characters.

    Several people have read this book either for pleasure or to critique it, and nobody has ever commented that I have too many characters. :p
     
  11. Thanshin
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    Thanshin Active Member

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    I disagree.

    Shallow characters are the downfall of many stories, but number of characters is no more important than number of pages.

    It's an illusion created by the difficulty of creating a large number of deep characters.
     
  12. Vacuum Eater
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    Vacuum Eater Senior Member

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    I think that having too many characters who are not sufficiently dissimilar is much more of a problem than having too many characters overall. The more characters you have, the more critical it is to make each one distinct and memorable.
     
  13. Motley
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    Motley Active Member

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    If every character has an important role to play in the book, keep 'em, no matter how many there are. However, you might consider condensing characters: turning two into one to make remembering who they are easier.
     
  14. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Beware of circular justification, though. "I need the character Joe Boxer, the dentist, because of the subplot about Joe Boxer's arrogant materialism" (reference to King's Under the Dome). The character and his entire subplot are completely disposable.
     
  15. Blips
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    Blips Member

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    I find it interesting that you find Joe's character to actually have a subplot. I viewed it as trying to establish his character. Granted Joe had such a small part in the story that it could be argued that less time should have been spent attempting to give him some character.

    At what point does suspending a main plot line to provide characterization become a tedious subplot I wonder?

    I'm fairly certain I'm not going to have too many characters within my story but I am spending time to establish main characters at the sake of furthering the plot occasionally.

    One example (coming from one of my latest threads about trying to use onomatopoeia) would be where I spend just a bit more than a page playing out a sequence where one of the main characters doesn't want to get out of bed to answer her cell phone. It's not very dramatic or anything but I thought it would help establish her as not just some bad ass but as an actual human and allow for the reader to connect with her more. My story is also fairly dark, getting only darker the more it progresses (first chapter contains drug use, others being drugged against their will, a decapitation, a horrific vehicle accident resulting in two being maimed, one being graphically killed, two others being severely injured and two others being killed off screen, the main character fracturing her foot, and more) so it felt like providing a the reader a chance to catch their breath and read something a bit more innocent would be nice.
     
  16. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm going to agree with Cogito here - if the characterisation is longer than a short hey this is what he is wearing (which I do like to see) it should be integral to the story. It should move the story forward.

    i do understand your example my second story is dark, I tend to take the lighter subplot and find a way to help them tell the story for example I had one at a foster home full of boys it was fun but not moving story along. I gave the father a job and made him the father or foster father of three main characters it allowed me to include him in the story and give him purpose/
     
  17. zilly
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    zilly Senior Member

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    What do you think about describing these characters? I usually hate long descriptions because I think they take away from the flow of the story. Additionally, I think a lot of the details can be conferred by reading the story without the description.

    We took an odd approach to writing the first chapter, at least in my opinion. We really don't describe any of the characters outside of a single sentence here and there. However, at the beginning of the second chapter, we take about 1000 words to tell a couple anecdotes that describe the characters. Usually, I hate when the progress of the story line is broken, but I think this works. However, I'm wondering how other people feel about this.
     
  18. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    It depends how it is done I guess. 1000 words seems to be a lot of description. However I know that if a character's physical description is important to the story it needs to be done as quickly as possible so the reader doesn't form a view contrary to the one the story needs.

    If it is that important then the description needs to be as soon as possible after the reader meets the character.
     
  19. Norm
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    Norm Contributing Member

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    My current method: Infinite minor antagonists, one annoyed MC.
     
  20. Blips
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    Blips Member

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    If a long description is needed (but not required immediately) I tend to sprinkle my descriptions throughout multiple paragraphs lightly.
     

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