Saturday, December 10, 2011

How Many Characters to Use?

Over the years I've come up with a few rules (think more like guidelines rather than laws) about populating my stories.

The question I usually ask myself when I start to build a short story, novelette, novella, or even embark on a novel is how few named characters I'll need to tell the story. A single character can carry an entire short story but a novel usually calls for multitudes.

In general, I like to use full names for the main characters, single names (first or last) or title for the supporting players, and none at all for the spear carriers and chorus members unless they are some off-stage reference of historic character.  I have the same approach for providing physical descriptions, clothing, personality traits, etc. The reason is that I want to paint a physical picture in the readers mind, and this means providing specific details over the course of the story's arc.

An arc is a sequence of scenes, each of which has a beginning, middle, and end. The major arc is the main plot that drives the entire tale.  I try to let the main story arc revolve around a few named characters, preferably the ones who are going to appear in the epiphany and denouement - think of a couple in a romance, for  example.  At the intermediate lengths of novelette and novella, the arc of the story determines the number of character interactions.  Within longer works there could be many intermediate arcs and those digressions sometimes require different characters. 

I find it difficult to mentally keep track of more than three named characters and think the limit for any scene, and probably the arc containing that scene, should be limited to no more than that number.  A five part conversation is difficult to write and still harder to read.  By keeping it simple, merging characters, and consolidating you prevent the reader from having to twist their brain around all the "X said-isms."  Recently I noticed this "law" at play in Laura Anne Gilman's Vineart trilogy.  While the viewpoint character dominated the main arc, she never has more than three named characters interacting within an arc.

The general guideline is to allow the story to dictate the number of characters, but restrict the number within each arc to make it easier on the reader.

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