How Many Characters Do You Need?

Now, we all know you need a protagonist. If you have no protagonist, you have no story. Your protagonist can be anything – it doesn’t even have to be a person. Heck, you can write a story from the POV of a house, or a cat, or a cup of tea. But you need a protagonist. That’s the easy part.

Usually you also need a bad guy. Or, if lack of bad guy/woman, then you need a bad event. Something needs to happen, something “bad”, or a person needs to be bad. So it’s pretty well defined that you need at least these two characters.

But how about secondary characters?

I usually figure out quite easily how many secondary characters I need. It depends on the scope of your story. Writing a short story? Stick to a few. Two-three is ideal. Writing a novel? Then you can expand your cast – but don’t overdo it. If you have dozens of characters you’re treading into epic novel territory, kind of like Game of Thrones. You can do that, sure, but you need the space for it, and the appropriate setting.

Characters need to make sense according to your setting. If you’re writing about four people stuck on an island in the middle of nowhere, chances are you’ll only have four characters. That’s easy. But how about you’re writing about a high school setting? Or a work setting? How many characters do you write about there?

In my Angel of Death Series, the cast is pretty extensive. That’s all right, because it’s a series – if you plan on writing three books or more in the same series, then it gets tough if you only have a handful of characters. In that series, we have main character Riley, her family (Mom, Dad, sister, Grandma), her friends at school (three characters), and then a bunch of supernatural characters, so you easily have a cast of ten to fifteen characters to play with, and the characters reappear throughout the series.

In my Ghostslayer series, the books move from one setting to another, and the main cast only exist of four members, but the supporting cast changes in every book. The Mirrorland series has a cast of six to ten characters because it will only be a trilogy – but the further along we go, the more characters appear, which is natural. Think of watching a TV series. If you get introduced to every character right away, it gets boring fast, but if they throw in a new person every now and then, it keeps being interesting.

Now, my JanuaryWIP is a different book altogether. I don’t know yet if it will be a series or not, but in this book, I want to keep the cast minimal. But you do have to stay realistic. A character with just one friend is possible, but it doesn’t add a lot of choices or opportunities for character interaction in your book. Even if you want to keep a low cast, a person usually has at least two or three close friends they intereact with.

What about you? How many secondary characters do you think a book should have? When does a book have too many supportive characters?

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