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.