Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How Many Characters Is Too Many?

At last night’s critique group, I brought a three page scene from my WIP, some 200 pages in.  The folks in my group have seen bits from this book many times, but only a couple have read the whole thing.  While they liked what I wrote, the biggest complaint was that they couldn’t keep track of all the characters.  There were five.
The biggest problem with critique groups is that we are limited to only a few random pages.  It can be pretty hard for readers to put it into context.  For someone who’s never seen any of my story before, it can be impossible.
My argument is that after 200-some pages, readers know the characters well enough to handle five in one scene.  And, I’m writing for kids, who can have an incredible ability to remember minute details of insignificant stuff.
Am I wrong?  How many is too many?


Ted Cross said...

I think it depends on the readers. Many apparently can't handle much, but if you look at how hugely successful George R.R. Martin has been then you can see that another large group of readers can handle even dozens of major characters with no problem and LOVE IT.

Lt. Cccyxx said...

I don't know if you can make any hard and fast rules here. My work has been criticized for introducing too many characters too fast, but if they are distinctive and only two or three of them wind up being important, what's the big deal? Some scenes require a lot of characters. And if your scene is 200 pages you say, the reader should know the characters already or you've got bigger problems. But I also agree with Ted Cross more generally - it depends on the reader.

Adam said...

Five doesn't seem like too many to me, as long as each character is well defined.

One of my favourite book series uses five, in fact. :)


Patti said...

I think we underestimate readers abilities to keep track, especially after 200 pages. I could see if it was the first scene of the book. And I agree with Adam, as long as each character plays a role in the scene.

Wendy Sparrow said...

You know... when a question like this comes up... I consult the core fiction... Harry Potter... or, sadly, Twilight. (Let's go with Harry Potter, though) So, I can think of multiple scenes where there will be Hermoine, Ron, and Harry present just offhand. They'd be considered MCs and standard, though... and they have distinct names and established personalities. If all three are present, you might have two other classmates present or more. It seems like there are a lot with Draco and cronies present, but the fact that they're antagonists makes them seem "separate." You also might have adults present. What you'd rarely see in Harry Potter, though... would be Harry and four minor characters... or Harry and Harvey, Horatio, Hallie, and Hugh.

I think... after "Harry Potter" ruminating... at least two of the characters should be MC and should have a bigger role in those pages. They shouldn't have really similar names. Age differences or evil characters are more distinct... and more permissible. All dialogue needs to be clearly attached, though... and using he and she is almost illegal.

So, that's my opinion. I think after 200 pages most scenes should contain at least two people and five doesn't seem like too many.

Matt said...

Thanks everybody. I think you're all right. I've always thought of Harry Potter too, but I would never publicly compare anything I've written to Harry Potter.

I think another problem with critique groups is everyone is too impatient to read their own piece and they don't pay close enough attention to what someone else has written.

Kate said...

five is a lot, but it depends on the scene. if it's a big action scene or a major plot point you may need all five people there. but if you are dealing with a lot of dialog it can be really hard to keep track of who's saying what and what everyone is doing.

whenever possible it's best to keep scenes to only two or three people. if you need more people in the overall scene, try to get pairs to sneak away for a conversation so you don't have 5 people all talking in dialog at the same time.

Donna said...

Really, if your critique group can't handle five characters in one story, maybe it's time for another critique group. My manuscript on submission now has . . . 5 predominant characters with a bunch of secondary characters and I've never had that issue.

On the adverse side, perhaps it's a sign that your characters are blending blending too much into each other. At any point of the story, your characters should easily differentiate from each other, regardless of context. Maybe people won't be able to put the scene into context but the characters should be distinguishable enough.

I'd recommend putting that same excerpt up on AW and seeing what people say. If they, too, have the same issue, that they can't keep characters straight, then the problem lies in the characters, not the critique group.

Travener said...

Five is by no means too many.