Daily Archives: December 16, 2009

Prolific Characters

It may just be me, but I think we have a few too many toothbrushes in our house.  Nineteen for six people seems excessive.  Granted we have three bathrooms, allowing one to argue that six toothbrushes in three bathrooms is okay.  You know, on the off chance that a chopper-scrubbing emergency might occur anywhere in the home.  Something like a displaced popcorn hull that could be fatal unless removed in 2.2 seconds in the nearest bathroom.  Quick, no time to run upstairs.  Our speed and agility might be the difference between a family of six and a much smaller fam of five.  Thank our toothbrush hoarding foresight for warding off that disaster.

I can’t imagine a time when I would need to brush my teeth in any room besides my own bathroom.  And, quite honestly, neither can my kids.  All four of them brush their teeth in the master bathroom.  Hence, one bathroom times six people equals thirteen toothbrushes too many. 

How did we collect so many?  I honestly don’t know. 

But I do know that peripheral characters in a novel can proliferate as easily as excess toothbrushes.  As writers, we tend to add characters willy-nilly.  The grocery store clerk debuts in chapter three.  The ice cream man stops by in four and seven.  The teacher arrives on time for chapter one, but is truant until the finale. 

But, we might argue, somebody needs to give our MC her change after bagging her much needed groceries.  Someone needs to throw the protag off the trail and the ice cream man is the perfect combination of smooth and cool.  The teacher helps solve the crime.

My answer.  Too many toothbrushes.

When our novels have too many characters, readers can lose interest.  It’s hard to split our time, attention and loyalties between too much of anything.  For younger readers, it can be a simple matter of character overload.  They become confused and can’t effectively keep the names straight.  Once the door of discontent opens, the covers of a book close. 

Middle grade and YA readers can tolerate more named characters than the youngest readers, but they still want a small enough cast to care about each character.  Even a little bit.  Remember that grocery store clerk?  If he has a name and a description, someone might walk away mighty upset that his only role was to bag canned goods.  The teacher?  Heck, even I have trouble remembering a character fourteen chapters later.  The impact on the reader will be non-existent. 

Even adults (or it just may be me) hate when characters flutter in and out of novels, but don’t really have any meaning.  It’s a waste of time to describe a character who has no impact on the story. 

So how many is too many?

I searched endlessy to find the correct answer.  Alas, Google doesn’t seem to know either.  I then turned to my bookshelves hoping for some clear cut resolution to pass on to you.  Again, I had no resolution.  My findings indicated anything from one MC to dozens of characters  is okay–picture books included. 

  1. Middly Grade Hatchet by Gary Paulson.  One MC.  A handful of peripherals.
  2. Picture book Donna O’Neeshuck Was Chased by Some Cows by Bill Grossman.  One MC and dozens of farm animals, a boy on a bike, town’s people, etc..
  3. Chapter book Roscoe Riley Rules #1: Never Glue Your Friends to Chairs by Katherine Applegate.  One MC and a dozen or so peripherals. 
  4. YA Graceling by Kristin Cashore.  One MC.  Peripherals: too many to count.
  5. Adult fiction Thr3e by Ted Dekker.  One MC with a strong support character and antagonist.  A small handful of peripherals.

This tiny sampling shows there is no definitive answer to the number of characters a book should have.   And so, as I have nothing concrete to pass along to you, I will provide you with my perception after being an avid reader and writer for many long  years.  Sorry I can’t be more informed, but here it goes:   

Get rid of the characters you don’t really need.  Often times we can roll several incidental characters into one.  This new creation can be fleshed out and have an impact on the story.  Maybe the ice cream guy and the grocery clerk are one person.  This makes the red herring premise even more realistic if he seems to “show up” everywhere. 

The teacher?  I suspect she could also show up in a few more chapters at key points.  For instance, behind the MC in the grocery line.  Even if she doesn’t say anything, she can witness something small and make her heroic effort at the end more plausible. 

Be judicious in naming your characters.  Not everyone needs a name, a title and a description.  If they are nothing but a warm body in case of a popcorn hull emergency, they don’t need a prominent place in your novel.  If you indtroduce them, they will become important for that simple fact.  If they’re not important, don’t name them.  Or better yet, throw them out when you clean up the bathroom edit your manuscript.

I apologize for asking a question I can’t rightfully answer.  Each manuscript is different in scope and depth.  Some may require a large cast while others work well with a mere handful.  It is up to you to determine if characters can be combined or cut completely.  Only you know if they are essential to the outcome of the story.

I’m off to purge my home of extra toothbrushes.  Gotta make room for the new ones!