Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen: Why you shouldn’t overload your novel with characters
Writers frequently ask how many characters they should have in their novel. Unfortunately, that’s one of those questions that doesn’t have an easy answer. The most I can say to an author is that it needs however many characters are necessary to the telling of the story and no more. Yeah, I know. Not very helpful. There are some generalizations. Fantasy books and epic, multigenerational stories can typically get away with more characters than your standard romance novel, for instance. Other than that, you just need to make sure that any character that shows up in your story has a purpose. If a character’s role could be played by an already-introduced character, do you really need them? Having too many characters can cause some real problems for your novel, so this is no trivial topic. Let’s take a look at what happens when there are too many characters crowding your book.
1) Too many stories to follow: Have you ever read a story that had so many characters and so many subplots that you had to keep flipping back and forth to try to remember who was who and what was going on? You do not want to do that to your readers. There’s nothing wrong with a complex plot that makes your readers think, but you don’t want to overload them with so many people that they can’t keep track of who did what and how they are all related. Any time your reader has to stop reading to figure something out, you risk them deciding it isn’t worth the effort and putting your book down. A few interesting subplots featuring a handful of intriguing people adds depth to a story. Too many just adds confusion.
2) Readers don’t know who is important: This is especially true if you give point of view to many characters. While it is just fine to write a novel from the point of view of multiple characters, there should still be one character who takes precedence. If you have many characters hogging the limelight, it can get difficult for readers to distinguish your protagonist from the other major characters in your book. If they don’t know whose struggle is most important, and therefore don’t know who to root for, it can leave them confused and feeling disconnected from the story.
3) Connection to the characters is diluted: This, too, is especially true in a multiple-viewpoint novel. People read novels to get to know the characters, to get inside their heads, to connect with them. Introduce them to too many characters, and they don’t have time to really get to know any one of them. Think of your book as being like a cocktail party. If you go to a cocktail party that only has ten people at it, you’ll have plenty of time to talk to all of them and learn about them and maybe find a new best friend. If the party has fifty people, you’ll only have time to say a word or two to each one before you have to move on. Alternatively, you might get to know a small group and ignore the other people, which could be disappointing if your potential new best friend is in the “out group.” If your book is like that large cocktail party, your readers may only get to know each of the characters superficially. If they don’t feel connected to your characters, they won’t care what happens to them. And there they go putting your book down again.
4) It can make your book feel choppy: If you’re telling the story of numerous characters and jumping between several points of view, it can be hard to keep the flow of the story going. Just when we get into a groove with Character A’s story, we jump over to Character B’s story. And just when we’re feeling it with Character B, all of a sudden Character C pushes her way in. Do this too often, and your book can start to feel like a bunch of vignettes, rather than a cohesive story. Even if you’re not giving all of the characters’ point of view, following the movements of many characters can still put the brakes on your protagonist’s forward motion. It can start to feel like trying to talk to your best friend when she’s had too much caffeine and can’t stay on one topic for more than thirty seconds.
There is nothing wrong with a novel with multiple points of view or with several characters filling out your protagonist’s world. We learn a lot about a main character from their interaction with the people around them. Just make sure that every character in your novel is fulfilling a purpose that no other character can fulfill. If removing the character doesn’t affect your main character at all, ask yourself if you could just take them out. If you keep your cast of characters down to the bare minimum needed to tell your story, you shouldn’t have to worry about overwhelming your readers.