Someone pointed out to me that my book has 30 characters and that could be a problem.  If it were War and Piece, that's one thing; but my novel will probably be about 300 pages.  Of course, many of these characters are cops, assorted thugs, etc. 

I've excised one character but can't see how I can get rid of more.  Any ideas about this?

There are exceptions: Cormac McCarthy's Suttree has a zillion characters but he somehow gets it to work.

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There are characters, and there are characters. What are you counting? Is the waitress who hands the hero some coffee and exchanges banter for half a page a character? Yes, but does that "walk-on" count toward having a confusing number of characters? Let's face it: some "characters" are scenery, or even stage business. We need them to expedite something, or to be a foil for a more important character's actions. They show up, take care of their business, and leave. The movie term might be "extras." I wouldn't count those against whether you'd used too many or not.

Does the character do something important for the plot of another character's development? Does he or she show up in multiple places? Then, I'd say count them, but even then there's a hierarchy of importance. So long as that's kept clear, you should be all right.
Seems to me if you write a series, especially if its a police-procedural series, you're going to litter your books with characters. And that's a good thing. In a series like this these people are family. You expect to see'em--even demand to see'em.

The problem is not having too many chefs in the kitchen; the problem is how you organize and handle them.
I like your kitchen analogy, BR. Keep a lot of ingredients around (The book can have dozens of characters), but don't use them all in the stew (the story).

Did I have too much sangria at dinner tonight?
I'm with Jack on this, BR. The Wire and The Sopranos have been mentioned elsewhere in this thread. Among their considerable strengths were large and diverse casts. (For The Sopranos, I use "diverse" as meaning gangsters with different personalities and tastes.) This gave the writers great freedom in developing story lines, as they could choose which characters would be likely to fall into this, or who would seek this out. How much of The Wire was driven by Jimmy McNulty's disregard for the command structure, even if only indirectly?

I liken it to the beginning of the old Mission Impossible shows, where Peter Graves would go through the photographs to choose who was going to help him this week. Rollin, Cinnamon, Barney, and Willie got most of the work, but there were others to bring in as needed. It's a little virtual repertory company.
Hi Doug,

Did the person say why? That really doesn't help you for them to say "could be". They should have given you reasons. Did they say it confused them or did they say this because they don't believe the work will be published with the characters or what? They shouldn't leave you hanging with that statement then you'd know how to tackle them.

Are these 30 MAIN characters or just characters in all? If it's not 30 main characters and are secondary or some are No Name characters that only pop up once or twice, I see nothing wrong with it if they are needed. If some of these characters aren't needed then I'd cut them out. I end up cutting out characters all the time, thinking they worked and then when I got down to it, they just took up space and held up the story.

It also depends on your writing, your story and how you weave them into the story. I've read some books where the author had so many characters I got lost and confused about who they were speaking about if the character hadn't been in a scene for a while. That might be the main issue of having a lot of characters.

But the question is, are these MAIN characters? I believe if most of us counted our "characters" in our books, we'd have thirty or more. Are you counting the No Name folks like someone on the street that popped up one time or the man on the bike that tipped off the police, or the woman that found the dead body? These are examples of people that just occured once or twice and I don't even count them with my characters. Don't count those folks as characters if they just popped up at once. I think the point is that you count your main characters. Now if all 30 are main well, wow, LOL!

You might wanna just go through and see if every one of them is needed if these are main because that might be confusing to some readers.

Best Wishes!
Rule One: Don't have too many characters

Rule Two: Only characters who come back should have names

Rule Three: Don't make your characters names too similar

Golden Rule: If you have a great book or great series, screw all the rules--You and your editors will know what's right, even if some of your writer-reader effetes turn their noses up at it.

(See The Millennium Series, "The Girl ..."

A new appreciation for WAR AND PEACE as a result of watching the eight-hour LIFETIME/BBC TV presentation of the work. I saw the Audrey Hepburn Henry Fonda three and one half hour dramatization of the work, and it did little for me but take up my time.

This new, made-for-TV version must follow the book closely, because I see with the characters that each is distinct but some in more detail than others. I aslo see that there were far too many characters for me to keep in mind while I read the book.

What turned me away from the book, I think, was the fact that Tolstoy used too many words to say what could be said simply. I particularly remember that in one of the first few pages of the book, that Tolstoy used half a page of description to say that Anna Pavlovna was a confidante (I believe of the Czarina) The book is buried someplace in my stacks and shelves even after I tried to read it for the most recent time last year when I reached all the way to page 14 after being stuck at page 8 for years.

The main characters are deep, some deep in their shallowness. The ones that we see briefly, return in the memories of the main characters.

I give the producers credit for choosing Paul Dano to play Pierre Bezukhov, whose depth of sensibility practically dripped from the TV screen, and who, in their version, live happily ever after.

The next time I put my hands on the book, I will probably skim through to see how Tolstoy did it. Yeah, right, easy to understand the depth of genius.

I found myself wondering how the descendants these character's, most of them aristocrats, made out in the revolution that accompanied world war one.

My comments were intended for the "War and Peace" forum, but I suppose they work just as well here.

The Count of Monte Christo is over a thousand pages long, and has a large number of characters. However, one of the most incredible things about that story is how many times a character can rewoven into the story. Some of them serve three different functions, coming in early to play a small part, reintroduced for their main contribution, and then circling back for one last encore that has much more impact because of the reader's previous encounters with them. 

Perhaps it would be worth analyzing your story for bit characters that can be used later on for a more significant role. This could both tighten the scope of the story and help your readers engage more. Plus it can always be fun to have a random woman that your protagonist meets in an alley turn out to be a crime boss's wife. It might not work for your story, but it is worth looking into.

-Anderson Ryle

Just joining and picking up this thread (we'll see if anyone is listening).  I have been listening to a lot of audio books in my car and the voice actors will create "voices" for the characters who are central to the story, but will also tend to find some kind of accent or inflection for even the most minor of character in order that the listener can easily distinguish each voice speaking during dialogue.  But at the end of a book, you only really remember the main characters and those that had a significant role. Even so, if you think about a generic story, you have (1) hero; (2) hero's companion/sidekick; (3) hero's boss/director; (4) hero's love interest or other POOS; (5)-(10) -- witnesses, victims, suspects who are part of the investigation; (11) villain; (12) villain's right hand man/girl. So, right there you're up to a dozen characters that you can't really do without.

In my just-finished book, I had not really counted (until now), but there's (1) main hero; (2) hero's partner; (3)-(4) two other detectives assigned to the serial killer task force; (5) FBI profiler who is brought in to help; (6) the Chief of the homicide division - boss to the lead characters; (7) Mayor; (8) Police commissioner; (9)-(15) victims; (16-21) principle witness during the investigation of each victim; (22) reporter who is tracking the case; (23) Hero's love interest -- the county Medical Examiner; (24) The ME's assistant; (25) the villain/killer; (26) the FBI operative who becomes a target; (27) the corporate security chief who helps out in one key scene; (28) the killer's former army buddy whose interrogation leads to a critical clue; (29) the teenage boy who stumbles across the killer's live blog; (30) the teenager's mother.  There must be a dozen more tangential people who show up along they way and have lines of dialogue, so thirty is not a large number.  The smaller characters come in, serve their purpose, and then leave the narrative, but you have to have them.  The question is how many "main" characters to you have -- characters who have back-stories and depth and who need to change/develop/grow during the story?  If you try to have thirty of those, then you ARE writing War and Peace.

I wrote a serious political drama a few years back that was almost 500 pages and covered 20 years of time, but it focused in on four main characters who were interrelated and four other characters who were the drivers of the story, so only 8 characters who really had depth and mattered to the ultimate narrative.  The current crime-thriller has really only three (besides the killer).  Everybody else is necessary, but not hugely significant.  I guess you can tell based on how much back-story you have written about them.


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