You’re writing the first draft of your novel. A beta reader has pointed out that you may have too many named characters to keep track of, and now you’re on a mission to whittle down your cast of thousands.
But who should go and who should stay? What is the optimal number of characters for a book? Some say only four, others fifteen, but I say introduce however many characters it takes to tell the story but use common sense. Put the reader first–they must be able to keep them straight without any effort.
When you introduce a named character, ask yourself if it is someone the reader should remember. Does he or she offer information the protagonist and reader must know? Some characters will give us clues to help our protagonist complete his/her quest. Others show us something about the protagonist, give us a clue into their personality or past.
Does the person return later in the story or does he or she act as part of the setting, showing the scenery of, say, a coffee shop, or a store?
Only give names to characters who advance the plot.
In an excellent article on screenwriting, Christina Hamlett of the Writer’s Store writes:
In a screenplay, the rhythm you’re attempting to establish–along with the emotional investment you’re asking a reader to make–is disrupted whenever you devote more than two lines of introduction to a character who is simply there to take up space. In order to justify their existence, each player in your script should perform a unique function or deliver a specific line that:
- Advances the plot,
- Thwarts the hero’s objectives,
- Provides crucial background, and/or
- Contributes to the mood of the scene.
If you’ve included characters who don’t fulfill one or more of these jobs, they’re probably not critical to the storyline and can be deleted.
While she is speaking of screenplays, this is true of a novel or short story. A name implies a character is an important part of the story. Ask yourself if the character is an example of “Chekhov’s Gun.” Does this character serve a purpose the reader must know? If not, don’t give them a name.
One of my current works in progress has this passage, which takes place in an inn and involves a conversation overheard from a table adjacent to my protagonists:
The older merchant’s face darkened at the mention of the prince and his henchman. Quickly looking over his shoulder at the other guests in the common room, he hushed his son. “We’ll have no more mention of them at this table. If the wrong person overhears such talk, we’ll all end our days in our own beds with our throats slit!”
Culyn’s eyebrow rose, and he looked at Jack, who nodded.
Despite the fact the merchant and his sons give my protagonists information they needed, they are in this scene for only one purpose: to be overheard and don’t appear again. For this reason, only Jack and Culyn, and the three others of their party are named in the full transcript of this scene.
Novelists can learn a great deal about how to write a good, concise scene from screenwriters. An excellent book I have gained a lot of knowledge from is Story by Robert McKee. If you can get your hands on a copy, I highly recommend it.
We want the reader to stay focused on the protagonist(s) and their story. The second draft is where we make every effort to find the distractions we may have have inadvertently introduced in our rough draft, and extraneous named characters is an easy one to fix. Simply remove their name, and identify them in general terms. The reader will move on and forget about them.
Credit: Minor Characters Don’t Need Major Introductions, Christina Hamlett, Copyright © 1982 – 2017 The Writers Store ® Incorporated.