How many characters and when should you stop making more...


Well-Known Member
Mar 2, 2016
I have a central cast that I am happy with and feel that the protagonists are well established.

My question is more around minor characters, I feel that I am falling into a trap of each chapter protagonist meets SOMEONE NEW, and you get an exciting scene where that person says 'Hi I'm X.'

Obviously, you will often have a lot of protagonist meeting new people as they explore your world, but I feel that as you get further through the story it should become more focused, the reader should already know the villain and protagonist as it comes to a climax?

Hopefully, this makes some weird kind of sense, but if anyone has any thoughts..
I think you have to be quite brutal here. Past a certain point, if a shiny new character comes on the scene and starts agitating for some extra screentime, tell them no. They can do what they need to for the story, and then they and their agent can sod off. And so as not to confuse the reader, you shouldn't risk making these characters seem like they're going to be more important than they really are, and probably you shouldn't make them any more interesting than they have to be. As you say, focus is key when you're getting towards the end.
I think it depends on why your protagonist is meeting new people - are you telling their story, or using a carefully crafted cameo character to tell your protagonist's story? For the latter, you probably need to know more about these incidental characters than the reader gets explicitly told, but they ought to be akin to a guest-star role in a tv show - a solid, reliable actor who is going to convince the audience about that role in a few minutes of screen-time, bring out the aspects of the protagonist you're after, and then disappear.

If you're telling the stories of all of these other characters, how many can you juggle at once? Can you tie all of their ongoing stories into an over-arching tale?

There's no right or wrong answer to this, just what are you trying to do, and can you do it?

From your description, you are talking about the cameo character option, and if you're getting too many of those it's time to ask yourself why the plot/character development needs all these extras, rather than using the relationships/interaction between your 'central cast'.

PS Posts crossed in the aether - and what HareBrain said.
I've always (okay, not always, perhaps 'usually') found the fewer characters telling a story the better.

Yes! The more you have, the more the reader has to keep track of; the fewer you have, the greater the reader's emotional engagement with them ought to be because you can't care so much about all of them if there are too many.

There's a 'story' (maybe apocryphal - you never know with these things) from Japanese industry that pops up if you get sent on team-building/team development courses - how to find the optimum size of a team for a task.

Start with the people currently doing the job and get rid of one of them. The team struggles a bit and then pulls together and manages without the missing member. Now take away another one, and keep doing that until the survivors fail to manage without the missing member. Then put the last discard back. Or replace with someone new who hasn't been traumatised by the process. That choice of last step probably depends on the mindset of whoever's doing the course.

Try that with your characters.
I think it's much easier to include a character than to round off their story in a satisfying way, or even give them something interesting to do. Digging characters into a hole is easy compared to getting them out of it. On the other hand, more successful writers than me seem to be having this problem, so I'm not alone.
The less characters the better. My work was derailed by the appearance of a new set of characters with their own backgrounds that could feasibly make a complete and separate story. So, the less characters the better, and therefore you won't be too upset about having to cut them later.

Also, with more characters, there is a risk that the reader will like those characters more than the main character, which may or may not be what you want.
I think the number of characters in the story overall is something that depends on the setting and plot of the story and there can be as many as you can stand to try to include. However each scene might dictate a minimum of characters and how far you want to extend that might determine how far afield you want to go with inclusion of non-participating characters.

Also consider two characters in a restaurant with one waiter. If the narrator is consumed with their small field of vision and they are hyper-focused on each other, those three might work as the only characters there; however once the narrator starts trying to describe intricacies of the scene around them there might be something suspicious about an empty restaurant.

Also consider a character who perhaps is making constant arrangements to meet people while gathering information. It would become weird if everywhere they went the same person met them with vital information.

Unless they are in space you don't want your character living in a vacuum. However you do want to be sparse with the character details of those characters who are mostly window dressing and you want to minimize the number of those just for your own sanity.
I like to think of it like mixing paint. If you mix too much you'll get a murky mess where you might as well have defected onto the palette. However if you carefully mix in colours one at a time to create the colour you need add to them canvas then mix in a bit more for a little bit of tone, a bit of shading it works out. You can have the scene change have a few new ones depending on where your story takes you. I tend to write picaresque inspired adventures so you're traveling quite a bit, not really staying in one place long enough to really sniff the roses and the MC runs into people he knows frequently because of his age. Think about how many times you've ran into somebody from your past randomly and thought "Oh my god it's a small world!" My character is older than dirt so the chances of him randomly running into somebody he knew is increased ten fold I estimate. (Or this is my excuse for just having a person at the right time, right place.)

You need to think about the reality of the situation at hand. If the person is stranded on an island with a volley ball adding in a few more coconuts to confuse the audience might be a nice touch. If your new characters are overcasting the old characters then you have issues. Unless you're slasher flicking them off. Aww dangit another one got strangled by a cordless phone... that's the fifteenth one this hour.:oops:

Seriously it depends on how many you need. One of my favourite authors Guy De Maupassant would commonly write about french parlor culture and would have a page describing everybody in a parlor room and the guests of a certain mademoiselle's coterie! There'd be 20 characters introduced who'd all be important people who'd never been heard from or mentioned again. Which works great because it shows how busy the coterie is and how useless it really all it is with the parties and such. Only a select handful might be mentioned latter on, and only two characters you'd actually get dialogue from!:LOL:

Think about the useless people you meet in real life who are actually vitally important to society.

But keep in mind the thing about mud I mentioned. If you mix it up too much you'll end up with :poop:.
My novel is told from the POVs of 26 characters (four MCs, five or six supporting and a bunch of others with varying degrees of impact) - with several more non-POV characters - so as long as you can keep it all under control and maintain clarity for the reader, anything is possible.