Characterization: Too Many Characters?

James Michener, Source: Wikipedia, Public Domain Photo

Occasionally, I’ve read book reviews where the critic says the author had too many characters. In my opinion, this criticism is not always valid. Though, of course, often it is. It depends on the genre. If a book is a saga, a long book with a complicated plot, then expect lots of characters. I like sagas but then, I also enjoy extra-long movies and television miniseries provided they’re done well.

One of my favorite writers whose books contain a large cast is James Michener. Numerous well-known authors other than Michener can be cited here as well: Herman Wouk’s World War Two series: Winds of War and War and Remembrance, Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series, and even Louis L’Amour’s last novel set during the Middle Ages, The Walking Drum, falls into this large cast category.

The downside of having too many characters is that it can make a story hard to follow and confuse readers. Oftentimes, it causes them to put down a book. Should we put lots of characters in our stories? And in the same scene? As a rule, I don’t recommend this, except in the case I mentioned above– if we’re writing a saga. Yet even if we’re writing a saga, I would not allow lots of characters to overload a scene.

Tips for Handling a Large Cast of Characters

  1. Don’t give characters similar sounding names.
  2. When they’re first introduced, spend time describing them in a memorable way by giving them unique features and dialogue.
  3. To reduce the number of characters in your story, ask yourself this: “Is he/she important to my story’s plot?” If not, either make the character a nameless walk-on or get rid of him/her. Another option— merge the character into another, more important character so that the two become one.
  4. Use a Cast of Characters List on the book’s opening pages, listing all of the main characters, to help readers keep track of them.

Characterization: How to Create Three-Dimensional Characters in Fiction

All right, here comes my confession. During my early writing years, when I began writing fiction, I struggled with creating believable characters, particularly female characters.

Olivia d’Haviland and Errol Flynn in Captain Blood. The novel was written by Rafael Sabatini.

I erred in numerous ways, and it took me many years and much practice to hone my skill. Yet even as I write this, I’m still learning and honing. For me, of all the elements of fiction, good fiction, characterization is the hardest.

When characters are well-written, they’re three-dimensional. They seem to leap off the page. This doesn’t just happen, though. It takes lots of thought, lots of planning, and lots of mental “elbow grease.”

One key to creating these “living, breathing” characters is by getting to know them. Who are they? What motivates them to do what they do? Are their motives believable? What are their likes and dislikes? Where were they born? How old are they? What level of education do they have? Where were they educated? What events in their past influenced how they now behave? These are just a few questions we must ask when drawing our characters with words.

We don’t have to answer every question in our story, but knowing our characters’ backgrounds and what makes them tick is crucial if we want them to be three-dimensional instead of cardboard cutouts.

What’s the best way to get to know them? Write their biographies.

Must we write a biography of every character, major and minor? We can, but I’d concentrate on the major characters.

Is there a short way to do this? Yes, though it’ll still require some thought. First write a list of important questions about your characters, then go back and answer them. This will start you on the right road toward toward getting to know them.

These character questions also help us keep our story consistent throughout it. For instance, if we’re writing about a character named Mary and we forget her eye color, we can refer back to the “Mary Bio Questions” to find it.

A Few Questions for Our Characters

  1. Birthplace:
  2. Age:
  3. Nationality/Race:
  4. Height:
  5. Weight:
  6. Physical Build:
  7. Eye color:
  8. Hair color/Hairstyle:
  9. Shape of face:
  10. Father’s name/Occupation:
  11. Mother’s name/Occupation:
  12. Education:
  13. Religion:
  14. Personality:
  15. Admirable traits:
  16. Negative traits:
  17. Likes/Dislikes:
  18. Bad habits/vices
  19. Best thing that ever happened to them:
  20. Worst thing that ever happened to them:

This list, of course, can be expanded, and it’s something I recommend. If you haven’t already done so, try it. It’s well worth the effort and, in the long run, saves time on revision.