How Many Characters or Named People Is Too Many for One Book?
It depends. Aggravating response, I know, but it’s true.
The answer depends on your manuscript length, your genre, your story arc, and on your protagonist.
Generational sagas and epic fantasies are going to include lots of characters. Memoirs, autobiographies, and histories may also name many (real-life) folks instrumental to the stories you’re unfolding.
Determine Cast Size
Consider how big a cast you’re going to need. You don’t have to land at a specific number of characters, but reflect on the needs of the manuscript.
If you’re writing fiction, consider the genre expectations. Review the story arc or plot framework you’re following. And analyze your protagonist. Are you writing a heroine’s quest fantasy with in-depth world-building? Or are you writing a fast-paced thriller? Is your hero part of an integral team or a lone soul?
Another important consideration is to acknowledge the characters that have introduced themselves to you already. They have a voice and want to use it. Does their story belong in the manuscript you’re writing?
For nonfiction, who or what is the focus of the story? What’s your purpose in telling this particular story? Who were the integral players in the true event(s) you’re writing about?
Whatever genre you’re writing, remember that the fewer characters a reader has to remember, the better their reading experience will be. Make sure that every character or living person you include plays an integral, and not just a sentimental, role.
A Large Cast
Assuming you have a story that’s going to include a lot of characters or, in nonfiction, many named people. How do you manage them? And how can you help your reader track them?
Management Tips for Fiction and Memoir:
1. Introduce all point-of-view characters early in the story.
2. Only name a character who is going to have a role in the story and make multiple appearances. Otherwise, keep the character reference vague: “the nurse,” “the officer,” or “the neighbor”
3. Names should be unique and not easily confused, visually or auditorily.
4. Be consistent with how each character is referenced. Don’t bounce between first name, last name, and/or a nickname.
5. Make named characters memorable in some way, and share the thing that makes them memorable in their introduction. Possibilities are limitless: their relationship to the character (lover, frenemy, parent, etc.); a unique quirk or personality trait (a hitman who loves Gummi Bears); a distinct physical appearance (a granny with a purple mohawk).
Management Tips for Nonfiction:
1. Introduce major players with first and last names, as well as other identifying information, such as the role they played.
2. After the person is introduced, use their last name (or first and last name) in subsequent mentions.
3. If the person’s mentions are spread out, give readers a brief reminder of who the person is and their relevance to the information you’re sharing. An example: John Smith, the former used car salesman turned bicycle enthusiast, . . .
4. Protect people’s privacy. If you want to share a person’s real name, only share information that you’ve collected in a formal interview, that’s a matter of public record, or that you’ve been given permission to use. If you want to share an anecdotal story of a client, change their name and identifying details.
5. If people have similar names, help the reader differentiate between them by using their first and last names. And also, offer the reader a hook, or something memorable about each person.
Help Readers Track Characters or People
If your manuscript is crowded with fictional or real people, help readers track who’s who. Create a character list to include in the front or back matter of your book. This list can be creative or straightforward, but at a minumum it should include the character’s name and something memorable about them.
Also, consider how to organize the list. Will it be alphabetical? In order of appearance? Organized into subgroups?
Look at books in your genre to get ideas and to see what other authors are doing.
Don’t let a large, unwieldy cast keep you from writing the book you’re meant to write. Create a book bible to stay organized and to serve as a reference guide so you can maintain consistency. The book bible can be a Word document or a spreadsheet. In it, you’ll keep character notes to help you remember names and relevant details. You don’t want to forget that Granny has a purple mohawk and write about her green mullet in a different chapter.
Writing with a large cast can be daunting, but you can do it. One word at a time.