How Many Characters and How to Decide: Populating Your Story or Novel By Paul Saevig

Tolstoy wrote timeless novels with hundreds of characters and so did Dickens, Thomas Mann and James Jones. Albert Camus and J.D. Salinger used only a few. Probably most modern novels involve about four or five main characters – let’s make that distinction – although some use many more. What’s right for you in your situation, as you plan and begin a novel or a short story? What are the factors to consider?

As I’ve said elsewhere, writing fiction is not like baking apple pie or mowing a lawn, or adding a column of figures. There truly is no absolute or correct or standard way to accomplish any part of writing fiction, with the exception of completing your project.

Various experts and teachers will tell you to Show, Don’t Tell; to work with an outline or without one; to write only in longhand for first drafts, or not; to write only about what you know, or to release your imagination to write about anything that fascinates you; to Cut To the Chase always, or to follow wherever your own inspiration leads you; to write stories and novels driven by action, or by character, or by theme, or even by setting; or to write for yourself or to please a specific audience. I even know one somewhat successful writer who advises, “All the great ideas and plots have been done already, so there’s nothing left to write.”

Through this Vale of Fear we must all walk courageously, making our own decisions. True, we have a vast and growing tradition of proven methods that make good sense for various writers, but they are cheerfully ignored or contradicted by many other wonderful writers every minute around the world, with a results ranging from glorious to execrable. Because writing fiction is a creative work of imagination, every writer is sovereign in how he or she chooses to write. Plan and method are no guarantors of success or fineness, either. Although the waters we sail as writers may seem Homeric in their peril, Conradian in their ambiguity and Melvillean in their endless shifting, they are nevertheless rich and limitless for the creation of narrative art. Directive or prescriptive procedure mongering is the antithesis of creativity, and belongs not to writing fine fiction but to heating with a microwave oven.

The experimentation and sheer diversity of novels in the 20th Century proves this assertion unassailably. There is some security in writing along established routes of method and rules, but it’s not for the bold, curious, adventurous or most creative. We forget how innovative if not experimental many of the writers long considered great and canonical were in their time: Poe, Chekhov, Crane, Joyce, Pound, Woolf, Lawrence, all the way to Pynchon and the large number or innovators of the last few decades. It remains a greater risk for a writer to dare to innovate and experiment, but only a pedant would forbid him. Again, writing fiction is not like serving a tennis ball, dancing a waltz, driving an Austin-Healy or driving a nail, where there is a right way and a wrong. It is expressing feelings and ideas in the written words of a narrative, usually for the purpose of sharing or inducing similar effects in readers.

1. Choosing Characters, Probably As Few as Necessary

Therefore, the writer is free to select his incident or incidents, his settings, his diction and dialogues, and everything else, especially his characters. And he is free to employ as many characters or as few as desired. A writer eager to begin often overlooks this particular selection as simple or trivial, and performed almost unconsciously. In almost no other human endeavor is the assignment of people handled so lightly, not even in children choosing teams for football or baseball.

As a pragmatic matter, and in the interests of being successful in producing a coherent, readable novel or story, choosing a small number is advisable for the beginning or unpublished novelist. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Any novelist knows how vexing characters can be, once they come to any life at all, and how difficult it is to keep track of all they say and do, even where they are or what they wear from scene to scene. Let’s say 4 or 5 then, for a novel, to be safe and to begin.

2. Your Point of View Character

The most important of these is usually the point of view character, or in omniscient POV, one of them in particular. This is the person through whom we hear and see the story. If you understand the various points of view used in fiction, you know that even in novels written with omniscient point of view, where we rely on character after character for our perspective, a single novel almost always relies on one or two or possibly three for most of the narration, And that’s what you want: a clear and accessible focus the reader will be comfortable with following.

I happen to prefer short stories in which only one Point of View character appears. The form does not lend itself to more. In fact, creating more than one is like “playing tennis without a net”, as a writer friend of mine says. As primary as any other consideration in a short story is the tension of seeing everything through one character’s eyes and ears, including the discipline and artistry of the writer who can achieve this effect well. Adding more characters to share the work diminishes the interest of the story, and probably its appeal. The writer, though, is always free to try.

3. Traps, Obstacles and Counter Arguments

Here we need to answer the naysayers who claim, “No, I don’t want my novel to be clear, but rather dark and mysterious,” or “Not accessible is what I want, because I’m writing for one particular audience and not the majority,” or “I write science fiction (or fantasy or other genres) where earthly rules or conventions have no place.” I disagree with these opinions although would not call them wrong. My feeling is that even the darkest story can be told clearly, to greatest benefit and advantage, and that deliberate inaccessibility is a fool’s shooting his own foot. But to each his own.

One science fiction writer in a group, years ago, announced that all laws of physics were “local” and never universal, so that he could justifiably let anything happen he wanted in his stories. Of course, he was right about the latter. I’m not sure about the physics, and don’t think it matters when we write stories taking place here on this blue planet, Earth. Similarly, he could populate his stories with humans, humanoids, and all matter of non-human creatures; anyone can, and hundreds of them, if desired.

His stories seemed to gag and perish in their own excess, though. Often they did not seem to make any sense, or produce any effect, or carry a meaning. Maybe he succeeded in what he set out to do, but his activity transpired somewhere beyond where we convene now to discuss writing fiction.

4. Methods of Choice

How can you determine how many characters would be wise, or how many you need? Again, there is no authoritative or scientific method, or a true and noble one way. Revising some details of my own “How To Write A Novel” elsewhere on these pages, I now enthusiastically recommend you write out your plot in longhand, then revise and length with detail, and do it again at least one more time.

Your resulting narrative will have flesh and blood at that point, or should, and you’re ready to begin writing, with far more order and ease than if you started out to fill blank pages using only your imagination, with or without an outline. In doing so, you have a good measurement of how many characters the briefer narration needed, and thus the longer one, the novel itself.

To test this idea, let’s detour long enough to consider those writers who swear by writing without an outline, or even a finished idea. I’m not even sure it’s possible, and may be self-deception. After all, it sounds heroic and awfully artistic in a Romantic sense: I pick up my pen and let it all flow out of me, without planning or inhibition, come what may, never knowing my destination or ending. You might try it yourself, with a short tale, and see if it works for you. I doubt it, but again, you are sovereign as a writer.

I forget the great writers who claim to have written without plans or outlines. Balzac, Dumas, and Zola may have been a few. Unfortunately, I am unversed in their work. May I refer again to writer friends of mine, who espoused this method of heightened spontaneity and flexibility? One claims an ability approaching certain absoluteness in being able to “follow the characters and story where they need to go”.

The work of this person and others sharing his ideas invariably presents a flavor and tone of the severely laconic, of most brutal and excessive minimalism, or more properly, minimization. Their stories read like screenplay treatments, and have an extreme hit-or-miss property. That is, you presumably “get” the point of the story or you do not, with almost nothing in the way of literary furnishing or persuasion. By their nature, these stories and novels seem small, limited, over-focused and artificial.

One writer of this type dispenses altogether with setting, claiming it impedes the pace of a story and distracts the reader. This person also opposes character description extending beyond the coldest brevity (“she had light hair” is OK for Homer in describing Helen, but no more). Perhaps as a result of these two habits alone, his stories seem barren, rachitic, as if he’s writing in monochrome about stick-people.

Can a good story or novel have too many characters? I believe so. I could do with fewer of the minor characters in Henry James. Yet in Faulkner they enrich and deepen the narrative immeasurably. Young readers today often lament the extensive populations of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I do not personally agree, but concede that art, reading and the world are conceived differently now compared to when I was their age, in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s true that no one writes in the style or depth of these two giants any more, or has for a century.

We must distinguish between those writers who go about their work with little or no plan or outline at all, and those who proceed with a plan including room for choice and decisions along the way, and especially in an ending. Most writers follow the latter course. Dickens planned in great detail, first in his epic walks across and through Greater London, and later in his handwritten notes. How much leeway he allowed himself along his narrative way, I do not know.

Let’s compromise here by recommending as much planning as a writer needs, and keeping our minds open to those who believe they need little or none.

5. Ways To Make Characters, When Few, More Useful

I’ve often found it useful to combine two or more characters into one. Sometimes a combination can be neater and more powerful than one. In one of my personal favorites, I wrote a story about a noble old lady who decides to remain in her increasingly dangerous neighborhood. In my first few revisions, she had character peers from up and down the street, including an elderly boyfriend. While these minor characters were probably valuable and enriching, they were not quite necessary for the story to succeed as compact and attentive to the old lady. I removed them, or devivified some of them into references or words only, and the story seems to be stronger for it.

In the beginning of a project, I often believe I need a separate character for some lonely purpose and often nothing else. This deception is like fielding an athlete for a team to do notice but pass the ball or field high grounders or hit low inside knuckleballs. You want not part-timers but full participants in your story, characters full of life and passion, making decisions and being active.

In “The Good Gangster”, published by Puff Adder eBooks, I began with several more gang members to show their diversity and variation. One was more cold-blooded, one was more sympathetic and normative, one was older, one much younger. Early in my revisions, I saw that so much multiplicity was unnecessary, and I could make my points with a smaller population. Showing the variation was of lesser importance, and was not worth the added cost and possible confusion it might cause.

That brings us to the common complaint that a story or novel “has too many characters and is confusing”. If you write carefully and revise enough, this criticism is usually a canard. It indicates the reader is not paying enough attention, or asks too much of him self, or expects everything he reads to be simple, or even that he’s lazy. Now if you hear this complaint, you may decide that “The customer is always right” and simplify.

I analyze who’s making the complaint, how engaged and sophisticated that person is, and how many others does he most likely speak for. Invariably, this complaint comes from a casual reader passing quickly over your paragraphs or even skimming. This practice is not actually reading, and we serve readers first, sometime solely.

After a while, you acquire a feeling for this analysis of how many characters, and perform it easily. Let’s imagine a reader who rarely if ever reads fiction makes this complaint. Or maybe it comes from someone who reads assiduously, is well informed and insightful, and knows what she likes. Which are you more likely to accommodate?

Many people know nothing about reading or stories, and many are opinionated, and many have odd tastes. Don’t let them lure you from the story you need to tell, in your own way. Think about a wide and legitimate audience for your story, write for them, and be sure it’s something you’d like very much to read yourself. No writer no matter how sublimely gifted has ever lacked some readers who despised her work.

6. An Example of Choice

Let’s go through a selection of characters. Suppose a short story occurs to you where a young American wife of a Marine Corps private waits at a military air force base for him to return from the battlefields of Iraq. Let’s say they’re both twenty years old, and in the several months he’s been gone, she’s had a baby. Is she fearful that he’ll be changed, and for the worse? Does he bear emotional wounds? Suppose he has an overbearing, bossy mother who insists on coming along to the airport. And suppose this woman has a new husband who is of Arab and Muslim descent. What’s going to happen, and how might you tell the story? What characters do you need?

Our choice depends on what you have to tell as a short story, a novella, or a novel. Sometimes a story or idea is so rich and powerful to you that you decide to tell it as a novel. Regarding short stories, there are many types that authors write. A few are:

1. A one-scene story, with the Unities of time, place, action and character preserved, as described by Aristotle. For this type, you probably want no more than 1 or 2 main characters, and not too many minor ones, or foils, either.

2. A story of three to five scenes, within twenty pages or fewer. This is the type we most often see in new publications now. Here we may allow more main characters, probably 3 or four, and more foils, too.

3. The longer story, of the type William Faulkner, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, Peter Taylor and others have done so well. This type might be 30 or more pages, and can profitably use a fifth or even sixth main character, with even more foils.

For the airport story suggested above, the number of characters you choose depends on the complexity and detail of the action you provide, fitting one or another story type. For example, if you choose a highly focused, intense story of the last moment of the wife’s anticipation, and the moments when she sees her returning husband and they embrace, that’s a one scene story and those two main characters are enough. She may even be the only main character.

Or suppose you want to portray a chain of events: arrival at the airport, anticipation, seeing him and embracing, a stop for dinner at a restaurant on their way home, and a homecoming lovemaking session. Two main characters may be enough. Or you may want to bring in some others, especially for certain kinds of complications, e.g., the husband has another girlfriend at another military base, or the wife has fallen in love with a man in their town, maybe her pediatrician.

In the longer story, usually more time passes. You might be creating a story about the first six weeks or months that the reunited couple lives together. Or the husband may detour into a story within a story about his experiences fighting in Iraq. In this type, you are likely to choose five or six main characters.

When you close your eyes in a quiet setting and listen for your characters, you should be able to hear them. If you’re sensitive enough toward them, you’ll hear what they’re saying, know what they care about most, understand their conflicts, and realize what they’re willing to do to resolve them. Listen for how many characters you need, and eliminate all you don’t.

7. Examples from Great Stories

As an exercise, consider some of the stories, novels, and screenplays you admire and enjoy the most. Three that come to mind for me are O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, and Robert Towne’s “Chinatown”. Since Catch 22 is an unusual novel, we’ll also examine one other, Nathaneal West’s The Day of the Locust.

In “The Gift of the Magi”, there are only two main characters, the young wife and husband. No more are needed, and would only get in the way. Thus it is also with W. Somerset Maugham’s “Rain”, with the prostitute and the minister.

Catch 22 has over a hundred characters, and while all of them are important, only about five are main characters, around whom the plot revolves. They are Yossarian, Nurse Duckett, Doc Daneeka, Dobbs, and Nately, as I read it. Others may see the cast differently. Part of the tremendous appeal of the novel is the vividness and lifelike quality of many minor characters, including Gus and Wes, Nately’s Whore, Major Major, McWatt, Dunbar, and many others. Writing such a heavily populated novel is an exceedingly difficult task, if only because all of them must be tracked and coordinated with everyone else.

“Chinatown”, directed by Roman Polanski, is the story of a Los Angeles murder in 1937, framed inside the larger story of a powerful man’s exploitation of California water resources to gain control of a huge area near Los Angeles. Our point of view character is private detective J. J. Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson. He becomes aware of something seriously wrong through meeting several minor characters, including a water engineer’s mistress (Ida Sessions), a client of his (Curly) whose wife was adulterous, and the water engineer’s widow, Evelyn Mulwray, a wealthy woman and another main character, played by Faye Dunaway. Gittes gradually learns what’s happened, both in the plotting of her father, Noah Cross (John Huston), who is the powerful man, and also the death of her husband, Hollis Mulwray, and finally the explanation of Mrs. Mulwray’s background and motivation. This last is the climax. Towne creates a fascinating and powerful story of greed and betrayal, with three main characters, and Ida, Curly, Detective Escobar, and a few other minor characters.

West’s The Day of the Locust is one of the most powerful novels ever written about the motion picture industry and the people who work in it, or try to. West creates it with three main characters, Todd, Homer and Faye. The supporting characters are superb and brilliant, but it is these main three that propel the novel and supply its layers of meaning.

8. Exercises for Practicing Your Decision Making

We have some exercises to help writers determine how many characters to use. Some of these exercises allow us to sketch parts of a story to try different numbers, before we begin actually writing.

1. Imagine the short stories or novels you like and admire best, by any authors. Ask yourself if a story could have been told with one, two, three or more main characters. If so, how? Would the value or power of the story have been diluted?

2. As an exercise, re-imagine one of your best short stories or novels with one fewer character. Can you re-imagine it with two fewer or three fewer characters? If it would still work with one to three fewer, try planning or rewriting it that way. The result might be easier to follow for a reader, with fuller remaining characters, a more focused narrative, and a better, more powerful story.

3. When you have a summary or outline ready for a new story or novel, test it by modifying either plan with one, two or three fewer characters. Does it work? Is the resulting plan better? For example, in the waiting wife story we discussed, we first imagined seven characters. With this number, the narrative -either a short story or a novel – might proceed as follows:

The Young Wife and her Baby ride to the airport with her Girlfriend, the Husband’s Mother and His New Stepfather, where they wait until the Young Marine returns from Iraq. He sees the Baby for the first time, and has a reaction that’s a conflict, questioning who the Baby’s father is. His Mother accuses the Young Wife of having an affair with Another Man. The Young Wife reacts by accusing the New Stepfather of raping her and making her pregnant. The Young Marine attacks the Stepfather, until the Girlfriend admits the Baby is hers, by the Stepfather.

Yes, this is bad TV soap opera, and one reason for that is the way so much has already happened to make the story nothing but revelations among too many characters. How can we identify and sympathize, when we race along not really knowing them? What if we remove two characters from the plan?

The Young Wife and her Baby ride to the airport with her Girlfriend, where they wait until the Young Marine returns from Iraq. He sees the Baby for the first time, and has a reaction that’s a conflict, questioning who the Baby’s father is. This reaction comes through his lack of enthusiasm and coldness toward his Wife. The Girlfriend is the point of view character, and we make the story more salient by suggesting her romantic love for the Husband. The Wife reacts and makes a decision that leads to the climax. Maybe she accuses her Husband and her Girlfriend of being lovers, and one of them reacts in a way to resolve the tension and conflict.

I think that might work. But what if we remove one more character?

The Young Wife and her Baby wait at to the airport for the Husband to return from Iraq. He sees the Baby for the first time, and has a reaction that’s a conflict, questioning who the Baby’s father is. This reaction comes through his lack of enthusiasm and coldness toward his Wife. The baby reacts to the tension by having an attack of colic. The parents become distracted in fumbling to comfort the baby and stop the crying. Their interaction together suggests they have a strong relationship, and could work out the Husband’s suspicion and the Wife’s sorrow about the accusation. One or both of them makes a decision to act, which either leads to a resolution or is itself a resolution.

9. Conclusion:

Obviously, an infinity of stories could be spun from these elements and crafted into something worth reading. If the art of sculpture can be described as a huge marble block from which a sculptor fashions a work of art, then written stories must be likened to a limitlessly large block, or sheet of paper, from which a finished story or novel is wrought. Choosing characters is of utmost importance, and their number is far beyond a mechanical or minor consideration. A successful writer will seek the ideal number to fit a story and proceed, willing to enlarge or diminish the number as the needs of the narrative become apparent.

Copyright Paul Saevig 2003

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