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On How Many Characters To Use In My Novel, by Onil Lad

Maintaining a reasonable number of characters in a novel is about defining its scope.  I prefer reading intimate books with a few characters that are easy to keep track of.  My problem with the long, many-charactered epic is that the amount of continuous reading time available to me these days is limited.  I have to cram my reading into weekends or maybe a couple of chapters here and there during the week.  

I can put some novels down for a couple of days and come back and carry on as if I’ve never been away. Other novels can take five hundred pages to get to know the cast. If you read a many-charactered novel sporadically, the chances are that you will come across an important character that you have completely forgotten about.  

Additional characters can be used to add to the richness of the world but there comes a point where, for me, they become nothing but a series of different names that you can’t relate to. I remember trying to read a historical novel that had a cast of thousands. It was like reading a history text book. Every time I opened it up, I was lost. It wasn’t worth the slog of trying to finish it. 

When work and other things are rolling around in my mind, I want a simple plot that delivers an emotional hit without making me work too hard.  I tried to keep this in mind when the scope of my novel began to creep up.  I wanted to keep a check on things and found that there is endless commentary about how to limit the number of characters in your novel to a minimum. 

I’ve seen articles that recommend drawing lines between characters and defining their relationships to the protagonist and then merging characters into one, to find out which ones make it into the novel and which ones don’t even make the first draft. You also have to give new characters backstories, decide which ones will still be there for the finale and then give a resolution to them all.  

Most of what’s written about cutting down the number of characters and making them unique feels like writing by numbers. If you reduce too much, you lose the chemistry between the characters and the plot that makes a novel worth reading.  It’s not all doom and gloom for stories with numerous characters.  Biographies can have a large cast to build up the picture of the person in question over the course of a lifetime. The same principle can work in novels.  I read a review of a Philip K Dick book where he had 56 named characters.  His books are short, generally 200 to 300 pages in length, and he still manages to pull it off because the themes and the delivery are so compelling.  

I’m not going to obsess over trying drop a couple of secondary players yet. I want to get the mix and feel of the novel right first.  


Onil Lad’s bio page


Half Moon BayThe Fragment of DreamsAll This Could EndRotten Gods by Greg Barron - Australian novelistHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeod

Writing Novels in Australia

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. 56? Yowzer! I’ve not counted my characters. I might! I do love creating characters though and I love it when they take over. A very, very secondary character in House for all Seasons was not going to much more than backstory in the first draft. But then she developed this voice and a past and, well, before I knew it, she was a central character in many ways (although she didn’t make the blurb. I was not letting her do that!!!)

    October 30, 2013
  2. Thanks Onil! A timely reminder. I’m actually just marshalling my characters now for my new book, will keep in mind I think – less is more.

    November 4, 2013

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