How many characters can you have in your novel?

Characters are the heart of every novel. Usually the characters are human, sometimes they’re animals or aliens or some other fantasy creature.

Even a location can be a character in its own right. Think Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Characters and character hierarchy

Some novels focus on a small number of characters and others have huge casts.

While this can work either way, the more characters you have, the more time you need to flesh them out.

Fantasy or historical novels with large casts can work if there is plenty of time (and word count) to build the characters during the course of the story.

Large casts in shorter novels can leave the reader confused and trying to remember who is who.

It’s even worse for novellas and short stories.

This is because you simply don’t have the time or the word count to flesh these people out for your reader. Even if these characters are sharply drawn in your head, there won’t be enough space to transfer this to the page.

Your plot as a boat or ship

Imagine your story is a boat of some kind. If it’s a short story, it’s a dingy. There won’t be enough room for many passengers at all. Otherwise the story will sink under the weight of all the characters.

If your story is a novella, your boat might be a larger yacht. Here, you can spare a bit more room to house them all.

If your novel is at the other end of the spectrum – perhaps a fantasy or historical epic – then your boat is a cruise liner or old fashioned galleon. Now you have even more space. Though you definitely don’t want to sink your plot with enough characters to fill a modern cruise liner!

However, it’s important to remember that a higher word count doesn’t necessitate a higher character count. It simply makes room for more characters should you need them.

You also have to bear your genre in mind. Locked room mysteries, haunted house stories (even including SF horror like the first Alien film), don’t need or benefit from a high cast count. There might be exceptions, but too many characters might distract from suspense.

In a romantic novel it’s also important not to sideline your two main characters with unnecessary side characters. The reader is most interested in the main characters and their emotional and psychological journey. Other characters who take up too much space will just get in the way of this.

Character hierarchy – first class or steerage!

To determine how to prioritise your characters and control the number you have, it’s worth thinking about your characters in terms of a hierarchy or social class system. Who are the first class passengers? Who are the VIPs?

Who is the most important character in your book? Maybe there are two (particularly in romance). Maybe there are more.

But you need to establish a hierarchy where the most important characters get the most time. These will be your first class passengers.

The secondary characters don’t get as much time, and neither do their subplots. Their subplots should ideally tie into the main characters’ story or reinforce the theme of your book.

If they do neither, you could consider tossing these characters overboard and dropping them altogether!

Minor characters should be unnamed where possible – some will be named, but there’s no point naming walk-on parts like waiters, etc, who will never appear again, or who are not important enough for the reader to remember. These people could be crew or steerage.

Naming a character can be an indication that the reader needs to remember this person.

Obviously, this doesn’t apply to the major and secondary characters so much. But when you don’t need to name someone, don’t bother unless you have a small cast of characters. With a large cast, you can’t afford to throw in any unnecessary names.

Returning to the hierarchy – think of it as a social class pyramid. Few people at the top, who represent the main character or characters. More in the middle who will be the secondary characters – except for novels with small casts. Potentially a larger group of background characters at the bottom, but in reality you might not have many of those. Especially if you have a shorter cast list.

On to this hierarchy you should superimpose a reverse pyramid or hierarchy. The people at the top get the most time. The people at the bottom get the least.

Character names that are too similar

Avoid character names that are too alike

This is another issue to watch out for! I know it’s tempting to have character names that are similar – perhaps your fictional family has a tradition of naming their children with the same first letter. Or maybe you haven’t thought about the similarity of some of your names.

A big problem is when your novel is very long with a big cast. You will now find it more difficult to use names that start with a different letter of the alphabet.

Why does it matter?

Well, the human eye doesn’t read every letter in a text. It reads for shapes.

This is why it’s easy to make spelling errors and not notice when you read it back. Your brain fills in the missing letters without you realising.

For that reason, if two words look too similar, it can be confusing. Too similar will mean:

  • Starting with the same letter
  • Being around the same length

Examples would include Anna versus Anya.

But you could have Anna and Alexandra because they have a different length and shape to the human eye.

I’d advise making a list of your characters and check for names that are too similar. Compounding factors include:

  • The two characters appearing in the same scene which will be more confusing to the reader
  • The two characters being the same sex

Generally this can just add to the confusion. The main problem is that it’s all very clear to you the author because you see the bigger picture of the story and you know who everyone is.

But your reader can only see what’s on the page. They can only know what they learn from what is written there. The last thing you want is to have them go back and reread things for clarification. If this happens too often, it will interrupt reading flow and potentially lead to the reader giving up and putting your novel down.

And you absolutely don’t want that.

I know it’s difficult if you’re attached to particular names and want to use them. But the bigger priority is to ensure you don’t lose readers. And you can equally fall in love with a new name. It’s quite possible to find one that’s even better. You just have to be willing to let go when necessary.

How many characters can you have?

There is no set rule. You could have a longer novel with few characters. Especially where you want to create a claustrophobic atmosphere with the main character or characters cut off from the outside world.

However, if you do have only a small number of characters in a long novel, they must be strong enough – along with the plot – to carry the weight of the word count. Filler scenes that do not advance the plot, character arc, or theme, will not cut it.

Readers know when story pace is flagging and ‘nothing is happening’.

The shorter your novel or story, the more strict you need to be with character count. Anything else short changes both your story and your readers.

If you have great side characters but there isn’t the space for them – save them for another story!

One piece of research you could do on this topic is to choose similar novels in your genre and do a character count for each. They won’t all be the same, but it will give you an idea of the parameters available. It’s obviously best if you have read these novels already and didn’t find the cast list confusing to follow.

Looking for feedback on your novel or memoir characters?

I offer opening chapters developmental edits, full developmental edits, and manuscript critiques. Ask me about tiered manuscript critiques – I can do lighter and cheaper critiques for those on a budget or who want me to look at specific issues. I can also just focus on the main issues and ignore smaller things.

And if you want to try polishing your own manuscript a bit more, I have a developmental self-editing checklist. Here is a post that covers a lot of the basics:

Developmental self-editing checklist for indie authors and self-publishing authors.