Occasionally, I’ve read book reviews where the critic says the author had too many characters. Though in some cases this criticism has validity, in my opinion “too many characters” isn’t always a valid point. A book that has a host of characters is neither good nor bad. The same goes for a book peopled by a mere handful. Everything depends on how well it’s written and its genre.
If a book describes itself as an epic or a saga, then expect lots of characters. One of my favorite writers whose books contain a large cast is James Michener. Numerous bestselling authors other than Michener can be cited as well: Margaret Mitchell, Colleen McCullough, and even Louis L’Amour’s last novel set during the Middle Ages, The Walking Drum, falls into this large cast category.
Whether readers enjoy a lot of characters or a few, it’s all a matter of style and taste. In short, it’s a reader’s preference.
However, if we write books using lots of characters, we do well to consider the following:
1. Don’t give characters similar sounding names. Similar sounding names may confuse readers, thus making it difficult for them to follow your story.
2. Try to reduce the number of characters in your story. One way to do this is to ask yourself this question: Is the character really important to the story? If not, either get rid of that character or make him/her a nameless walk-on character, or merge him/her into another, more important character.
3. Use a Cast of Characters chart. Write a list of all the novel’s key players and then publish them on the book’s opening pages. That way, if a reader gets lost or confused, he/she can refer to it.
See everyone again next week. Keep those laptop keys hopping!