Saturday, January 5, 2013

You Don't Need a Cast of Thousands

How many characters do you need in order to tell your story? If you're Hemingway writing The Old Man and the Sea, just two--the elderly fisherman and his trophy. If you're writing "Downton Abbey" or some other intergenerational saga, you need to introduce several dozen people to your readers. Clearly, it depends on the complexity of your plot and the intricacy of your narrative style.

For the sake of clarity and unencumbered pacing, it's best to keep the number of characters to a minimum. By "character," I mean an individual with a distinct name, description, and story role. For example, we may take our readers to a garden party with a hundred or so guests whose raucous laughter and gay apparel contribute to the mood of the evening, yet get acquainted only with our urbane hostess and her scowling maid. We've given readers two new characters and a roomful of party noise. (Trying to keep track of the rest would distract readers, even if we gave everyone name tags!)

So before you introduce a new character into your narrative, ask yourself a few tactical questions such as these:
  • Will this person's identity, ideas, or actions move my hero closer to his/her goal?
  • Will this person thwart my hero's quest? 
  • Will this person's experience give my hero a crucial insight into what he/she must do?
  • Will this person "take a bullet" for my hero--pull away someone who otherwise would encumber my hero, or fall victim to a hazard that otherwise might claim my hero?
If all such questions yield a "no," don't introduce the person as an individual character, but let him/her remain in the background. For example:

     "Have I any messages?" Hester asked, stripping her gray flannel gloves.

     The clerk turned to a rank of mailboxes and retrieved a folded half-sheet of stationery with her name hand-lettered on the outside.

     A chill ran down Hester's spine as she scanned its contents. How had Gretchen found her here?

The clerk performs an important function in this scene, but not so important that we need to be introduced. We don't know whether the clerk is male or female, young or old, natty or slovenly...because it doesn't matter. The note's the thing.

I once worked as an "extra" in a crowd scene for a college drama production. The director told us to mill about the stage doing things that a crowd normally would do in the city square, while muttering to one another, "Peas and carrots...Peas and carrots...Peas and carrots..." That way, the audience saw and heard us in the background, but their attention remained fixed on the main characters.

If an individual doesn't really advance your story, don't make that person a character. Let him be a nondescript "extra": No name, no physical characteristics, no inane dialogue--just peas and carrots.

Joe Allison and his wife, Judy, live in Anderson IN, where Joe serves as Coordinator of Publishing for Church of God Ministries, Inc. Joe has several nonfiction books in print, including Swords and Whetstones: A Guide to Christian Bible Study Resources. He's currently writing a trilogy of Christian historical novels set in the Great Depression.

Visit Joe's blog at


  1. This is very true. I don't like stories where I get lost because I can't keep track of the characters because there are so many of them. I think it's also important for them to have very different names, too, don't you?

  2. I think you're right, Karla. I once wrote a novel that had 3 men whose names started with "H." (I've no idea why.) I didn't even realize it until my critique partner said, "I can't keep Harry, Henry, and Hughie straight!"

  3. Great post, Joe.

    The novel I've been working on had a good size ensemble, and part of that is my main character was an ensemble of half a dozen. I'm now re-doing it, making two of the six main characters. The other four are worthy of names, but not being main characters.

    Also, I read a novel by Allistair MacLean that at one point had over twenty characters, and three or four of them had multi-syllabic names starting with "H". (Yes, MacLean was a veteran writer at that point).


  4. It had to merge four characters into two to streamline a novel. It's hard when they seemed so distinct in my mind's eye, but consideration for the reader was the thing. I just took the stronger of the two and re-assigned their dialogue. I did it, but I still don't like that I had to do it. Grumble. Grumble. LOL. Good topic Joe.

  5. Great blog in every way, especially in focus and take-away! Plus I appreciate your photo and bio at the end. We should ALL do that EVERY BLOG! :-)

  6. If you do have to have a large cast, having some kind of guide in the back is always a good thing..