How many characters should inhabit your novel?

How many characters should your populate your story?

In a 2015 workshop sponsored by Houston Writers House, local literary luminary Ann Weisgarber warned to not have more than five characters appear in the first three pages of a story (short story, memoir, or novel). We did not take up the related question, what’s the maximum number a novel can support and how much does it depend on the number of words or pages?

That workshop came to mind recently while reading Julian Symons, A Criminal Comedy. I’d been working my way through the winners of the Edgar Award for best crime fiction novel and Symons was on the list, not for this novel, but for his The Progress of a Crime, which I enjoyed reading a few months back. I stumbled upon A Criminal Comedy and decided to give it a try.

A quarter of the way through the 220-page book, I found myself backtracking to recall when a character was first introduced and why. I couldn’t keep track of them. So, I returned to page 1 and jotted down their names along with a few identifiers: title, wife of, husband of, child of, work colleague, and so on. Meanwhile, I wasn’t enthralled with the plot or the character development. Gardner’s “fictional dream” was interrupted. But I figured, what the hell, it’s only 220 pages, so I persisted.

By page 220, I’d logged 48 named characters, and I’ll wager I missed a few. I couldn’t recall another book with anything like this ratio of cast size to page count. The Brothers Karamazov came to mind, in part because I read it recently on a challenge from my grandsons. My version had a character list in the beginning with all the alternative names. I checked it out. There were 39 characters identified for the 775-page saga.

I’m fond of short fiction, where it’s rare to have more than six or eight character names. My preference for longer fiction runs to crime. I thought about Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, the Scandinavian crime authors – here’s a short list of my favorites –

  • Henning Mankell
  • Åke Edwardson,
  • Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
  • Stieg Larsson
  • Jo Nesbø
  • Jussi Adler-Olsen
  • Peter Høeg

Did I want to start counting names every time I read a novel? Is there some way to put the data into perspective?

I hopped on the internet, googling such phrases as “max characters in novel” and “too many character names.” I won’t bother showing you the links – you can find them easily – but lots of folks have opined on the issue of proper number of characters. I learned that War and Peace has 580 characters and Battle Royale has 40. I was led to examine Ken Follett’s, Fall of Giants, first of a trilogy, which has a character list, where I counted 124 names

Dramatic works often provide a cast. Among Shakespeare’s plays, I counted 25 characters in Hamlet, 27 in Romeo and Juliet, 34 in Julius Caesar, and 22 in King John. You can extend that list. Incidentally, I counted carries a warning: you might arrive at another, but comparable, number.

Since the Symons read, I jotted down names for a few other books, listed here with number of characters and the page count in parentheses. David Robbins’s, The Empty Quarter, has 18 (372), Dennis Lehane’s, Live by Night, has 12 (400), Josephine Tey’s, To Love and Be Wise, 7 (223). I may have missed some minor characters in these three stories.

I didn’t recall a large cast in any of Jane Austin’s four larger novels. From Cliff Notes and Spark Notes I learned Emma has 16 characters, Pride and Prejudice, 25, Sense and Sensibility, 26, and Mansfield Park, 14, Of course those books each have at least twice as many words as Symons’s Comedy.

A friend of mine always creates the character cast in pencil in the front matter when he reads a novel. I dug out the Martin Cruz Smith novels I lent him. The respective numbers characters (pages) are Red Square, 98 (378), Havana Bay, 53 (340), Stalin’s Ghost, 116 (332), Wolves Eat Dogs, 91 (336). Symons doesn’t look that much like an outlier after all. But Cruz Smith always had me on the edge of my chair, engulfed in his fictional dream.

Enough data – I heard someone say…

Let’s step back from the numbers and consider the question more practically. The size of the cast must be influenced by setting, time span, and plot complexity. In War and Peace the setting shifts from city to city, country to country and involves thousands of people in the midst of war. By contrast, Moby Dick takes place on a ship at sea that rarely encounters another ship. There can only be so many crew members. That massive tome has only fewer than 20 characters, including the eponymous sea monster. Historical novels that span generations and hopscotch continents need scores of characters, some real, others imagined.

Stage plays, in general, are limited by the number of scenes. Who’s Afraid of Virginal Wolfe and Death of a Salesman have casts countable on one hand. At another extreme, as mentioned, Shakespeare’s plays with broader scope might have 20 to 30 or more players.

Rather than ask how many characters your story should have, why not ask how few do you need to tell this story. Yes, Occam’s razor; the Principle of Parsimony; Vonnegut’s “Every character should want something even if it is only a glass of water;” The often-paraphrased advice by Arthur Quiller-Couch on what to do with your best prose, delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings. Strunk and White’s advice on economy of words applies to characters.

Bottom line: whenever new characters are introduced, the writer should note the critical role they play.

I was distracted reading Symons by the number of characters. He could have told the story with half as many and better maintained the reader’s interest. I’m not in the mood now to return to Comedy of Crime, but next time I read a crime fiction novel, I will record the named characters and ask whether I could eliminate some of them.

Author: James Murtha

Jim Murtha retired in 2013 from a technical career, mathematics and engineering, to devote his time to writing fiction and memoirs, which he did secretly most of his life. His novella “The Adventures of Kalamazoo” is available on Amazon.

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