One of the hardest parts of developing characters is deciding exactly how many of them you need. There’s a solid middle ground between sprawling casts and skeleton crews, but it’s contingent on the needs to the story and stylistic choice. Here are a few tips for writing both small and large casts, and for deciding which your story needs.
Too many characters: New characters appear left and right. Most of them have names, and we hardly ever see the same person twice. Each minor character has their own family and friends who either enter the mix, or who are constantly being mentioned even if they never appear. Too many characters makes it difficult for readers to remember who each character is, and often leads to trouble keeping track of names. It can also open up the story to continuity errors unless you’re very well organized.
Too few characters: This is a world in which everything is done by a handful of people. The main character’s only friends are plot relevant. They have no family and they associate with no one who isn’t vital to the story. This also tends to mean that everyone who’s anyone knows everyone else, and that if any of the characters do have families, half of the cast ends up being secretly related.
A general tip:
- Consider the scope. The ideal cast size depends on the scope of the story and the size of the world. If it’s a small, closed setting—five teenagers chilling in a beach house—a small cast makes sense. If it’s a fully realized world where international politics play a big part, it’s unlikely that you can bet by on five characters. By the same token, too many characters in a small world feels cluttered.
For larger casts:
- Pace your introductions accordingly. It’s much harder for readers to keep track of characters if they all appear at once, especially if there’s a large cast. It helps to introduce the main characters slowly and to make sure that each one gets their own entrance.
- Make sure that you have a hierarchy in place. It’s especially difficult to keep track of lots of characters when they are all equally important. Identify who your main characters are, who the secondary characters are, and who is ancillary. Allocate their screen time accordingly. It’s okay to favor some characters with more page space, because this helps readers figure out who they should be emotionally invested in.
- Don’t count on the reader to remember everyone. If there are two hundred named characters, acknowledge that readers aren’t going to keep track of them all, and be prepared to remind us of who they are.
- Employ conservation of detail. Giving effective descriptions of important characters early on not only helps readers identify who matters, but also makes them easier to remember later on. It is, on the other hand, perfectly okay to skimp on descriptions of characters who only appear once or twice. Likewise, one-offs probably don’t need names.
For smaller casts:
- Consider logistics. Does it require the villain to be in three places at once? Does it mean that your heroes need to be hyper-competent, since they don’t have any reinforcements to fall back on? Think about what your characters are doing, and make sure that it makes sense with the size of your cast. Likewise, remember that actually-the-same-person reveals make your cast even smaller.
- Mention people who don’t appear. If we go back to the five-teens-in-a-beach-house example, it’s unlikely that none of them have other friends or family. Adding a few throwaway references to teachers, other kids, or to the family member who owns the beach house reminds the reader that the beach house is part of a larger world.
- Don’t forget ancillary characters. These are the characters who show up for one scene and then disappear. They might be cashiers, joggers, or fellow commuters on the bus. These, like references to absent characters, make the world feel less empty and more complete. Even if your characters are the most important people in your story, ancillary characters make it so that they aren’t the only
Writing like a boss: Make a list of your characters and ask yourself what each one does any why they’re important to the story. If you have a small cast, this will help identify characters who can be split into multiple people. If you have a large cast, it will show which ones can be merged or, at the very least, will help you keep track of all the names. If you get to the main character and realize that, were they removed, nothing would change, you have a bigger problem.