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Nightbreeze44
Hello everyone I'm really comfused by this; my English teacher told me if you add too many characters to one story, your story falls apart. Is this true? If it is, is there a limit on how many characters you can have or you story won't be as good? please don't be rude about this, I'm really curious!
7/31/2012 #1
AughraOfEarth

This is a new one on me, but I also would be curious to know if there are any guidelines on this.

My own thought would be, that it depends on the size of the story. A short story might only have time and room for one or two characters to be used effectively. A long novel, say covering the history of a family over several generations, might have dozens. It strikes me the limits of human short-term memory might come into play (think it's 7 to 10 things, eg., characters' names, that we are best able to hold in our brains over a short time) but I've never heard anyone express this idea in terms of a story automatically falling apart.

7/31/2012 #2
civilwarrose

Hi, you know I was just thinking about this! I just got done reviewing a fic that I am REALLY loving, but one thing about it was that I kept having to go back and reread all the chapters to keep track of all the OC characters who were parents, relatives or in some way associated with the canon characters. (it was a prequel, so it focuses on canon characters' backstories.) As much as I love the story, it sent my head spinning rereading it and trying to keep track of everyone.

So I would say to avoid confusion, you should limit the number of characters and subplots to just 3 or 4 subplots or less, and maybe 12 or less characters? It depends on the type of story, though. If there are many canon characters and you want to write about all of them, it is fine. It is when you write too many OC's and there are a lot of new names to keep track of that some readers who are less patient can lose interest.

7/31/2012 #3
Nightbreeze44
That would make sense but say, it's a hunger games fanfic? Then would it be too confusing to list all 24 characters names?
7/31/2012 #4
yiranY

It isn't so much about naming them than giving them characterisation.

Since about half of the tributes are killed immediately, I don't think it's worth it. Just listing their names would be fine, though I can't think of a reason why you'd really want to do that.

And yes, a lot of characters with individual traits would make the story very convoluted and harder to read. A list of names? Not so much.

7/31/2012 #5
thelastpen

The limit is based upon the writer's capability of handling multiple characters. Some people can easily manage a cast of hundreds. Others struggle with three. There is always going to be a point where something becomes too complex and breaks under its own weight. Where that point is, however, will vary from person to person.

To put it a different way, some people are the writing equivilant of the Jiaozhou Bay bridge. Others are the 1940 Tacoma Narrows bridge.

7/31/2012 #6
GleeFan2012

Sometimes yes, sometimes no, I read a story with 36 chapters, I was a great story :)

7/31/2012 #7
Lord Kelvin

Is this true?

Yes.

is there a limit on how many characters you can have or you story won't be as good?

No. But you're likely to get confused/confuse others when more than five people are involved in dialogue.

7/31/2012 #8
Lorendiac

No. But you're likely to get confused/confuse others when more than five people are involved in dialogue.

One of my posted stories is a three-chapter fanfic.

The first and second chapters shows a group of seven canonical characters having a spirited discussion about what to do with some prisoners they recently captured (at the end of a canonical episode which never received any follow-up, so I was filling the gap).

Then, in the third chapter, the five prisoners are brought onstage to hear what the group of seven has decided, and we soon have a twelve-way conversation going on.

I spent a fair amount of time editing that chapter -- working on such things as making it absolutely clear who was speaking any given line, while trying to avoid the monotony of using the speech tag "[Insert name] said" in almost every paragraph. Those were troublesome enough, but there was a larger issue that bothered me.

Even as I wrote the last chapter, I knew I was straining the bounds of credulity by having twelve people, divided into two antagonistic factions, politely taking turns in speaking their thoughts -- instead of two or three of them all trying to talk at once, repeatedly. (If all twelve of them were part of the same organization, and had all promised to abide by "rules of order," it would be a tad more plausible.)

But I gritted my teeth and went ahead and finished that scene anyway. I felt I didn't have much choice. My basic concept for the plot, combined with certain canonical facts, made it virtually unavoidable that all twelve of these people would "logically" be in the same conference room at the same time at such a moment, instead of half of them just being represented by proxies or something.

Still and all, writing a twelve-way conversation is not something I recommend doing on a daily basis -- probably more trouble than it's worth, in most cases.

I don't have any immediate plans to try it again.

7/31/2012 . Edited 7/31/2012 #9
JadedPhoenixBurning

As others have said, it can depend on the writer's ability to write them. I tried to point this out to a woman that I was betaing for who created a DOZEN OC's in the very first chapter. None of them were ever really fleshed out and all of the women had one personality, the boys were all of another while the girls were all cookie cutters of each other as well. I personally try to only pull in one OC at a time to give them my full attention to help bring them to life before expanding the cast. In my current story I have a dozen OC's as well but they have been slowly introduced over the course of the last eight stories. That way each was firmly established before the others were brought in. Ironically, some of my most popular OC's were only meant to have cameo appearances only but they were a big hit in a short amount of time so they have become a staple in the stories.

7/31/2012 #10
Nightbreeze44
Ok good that really helps. I was just starting a story and it would be better with a lot of characters, but I'll modify it because I really don't think it's easy to manage a lot of characters. So I'll just set a limit of 10.
7/31/2012 #11
Ficta Scriptor
If you have a lot of characters some will be forgotten by the reader, but that's fine. Who out there could name every character in TLOTR? So long as you don't introduce a character, then never mention them for 10 chapters, then reintroduce them and expect the reader to instantly know who they are, you should be fine. Also like the previous poster said; you can have plenty of characters but doing so all at once will just be confusing. I can count about 25 OCs in my fic that play important parts, but most of them won't get introduced until key points later in the story, and it's a LONG story that I have planned. (To put into perspective, I have 5 planned volumes. I've written 60k, and I'm still not finished on volume 1) Just write your story how YOU want to. If you come up with a really complex plot that needs an enormous cast, fine. You'll just have to work harder to ensure they each get fleshed out enough.
7/31/2012 #12
Ventisquear

The story needs some main character, a protagonist. Usually it's one or two characters. These characters are the backbone of the story, they're what's holding everything together.

I didn't read the Hunger Games, but from what I heard, even there are two main protagonists, a boy and a girl, right? Think of the other characters - they're probably not just some random guys they met in the park. They're people who have some role, some impact on the story of the main boy and girl, right?

You may add as many characters as you wish, provided you don't forget who are your main characters and what you want to do with the story. The other characters should add something to the story (and it's the story of your main characters) and shouldn't steal too much attention to themselves. And that means, they can't be all as well developed as the main characters. That would be very tiring and confusing. Those that have minor roles, that die the very next day, should be developed only as much as is necessary - it's quite ok if they're flat.

7/31/2012 #13
Oracle Five

You should also keep in mind the difference between having too many characters, and having too many main characters. You could literally have a cast of thousands in one story - but if they're only in there for small roles and/or minor arcs, it's not too difficult to write them. I'm in manga fandoms primarily, so my example is going to be a manga one: One Piece. It's got a huge storyline and an even larger cast list, but most of those characters aren't around all the time.

However, if you have too many main characters, things will get bogged down quickly. I saw a PowerPuff Girls fic on this site years ago that tried doing that, with unfortunate results. There were twelve characters being focused on and the writer was losing track of who was what and which girl did what thing almost immediately.

Basically, write the amount of characters that works best for you...but don't be afraid to have bit characters! They're like furniture: practical and useful to have around, but you really don't pay much attention to them.

7/31/2012 . Edited 7/31/2012 #14
Lorendiac
As others have said, it can depend on the writer's ability to write them. I tried to point this out to a woman that I was betaing for who created a DOZEN OC's in the very first chapter. None of them were ever really fleshed out and all of the women had one personality, the boys were all of another while the girls were all cookie cutters of each other as well. I personally try to only pull in one OC at a time to give them my full attention to help bring them to life before expanding the cast. In my current story I have a dozen OC's as well but they have been slowly introduced over the course of the last eight stories.

I generally agree with your approach -- and also with your first point about how different writers will have different skill levels when it comes to tackling the job of trying to present several OCs in quick succession without putting the typical reader to sleep.

Earlier, I reminisced about a twelve-way conversation I once wrote for a fanfic.

Now I feel I should clarify an important point: In writing that chapter, I had the advantage that all twelve people in the room were canonical characters, and I could reasonably assume my target audience would already be familiar with each and every one of them! Knowing how to visualize them, how to "hear" their voices, knowing about the previous history between the "good guys" and the "bad guys" which was being alluded to in the conversation, etc. So I didn't need to educate my readers on the fly with summaries of each speaker's distinguishing characteristics, physically or psychologically.

I would be reluctant to write a twelve-way conversation in which most or all of the 12 active participants were OCs (and thus strangers to my target audience) -- unless that conversation were set in one of the later chapters of a long story, after I had already introduced a bunch of significant OCs on a gradual basis -- one in this chapter, and two in that chapter, and so forth, giving the reader plenty of time to assimilate the distinct personalities of, and other fundamental differences between, each of the characters who would vigorously participate in a big meeting that was vital to the plot. Likewise, if I were writing a piece of original fiction with no fanfic overtones, I probably wouldn't start out with 12 people sitting around a conference table having a lengthy, detailed discussion in which each character got to say more than just a line or two. After all, the reader wouldn't know -- at first -- how to tell one of these characters from another, nor which side to root for as they squabbled over a big decision!

(Watch -- now someone else may cite an example of a bestselling novel which started out exactly that way! Not just with 5 or 6 characters heatedly discussing something in the opening scene, and not just with a few characters doing most of the talking while 8 or 10 others just listened in silence before deciding which way to vote, but with a round dozen characters each getting some good lines in the same scene in which they all debuted at once! I can't think of such an example off the top of my head, but that doesn't mean a skilled professional has never made it work!)

8/1/2012 . Edited 8/1/2012 #15
The Lauderdale

When dealing with multiple characters talking in the same scene, there's also the matter of whether multiple voices become confusing, and in turn, whether that is necessarily a problem. It isn't automatically. Sometimes it is less important who is saying what, or even whether you remember who is who; what is said may be more important. And sometimes the sense of what is being said isn't as important as the general atmosphere.

I have a scene where some seven characters have speaking parts in a fairly rapid conversation, which several other characters are present for as well. I think it's important that I, as the author, at least knows who is saying what because that maintains an underlying cohesion, but I don't expect the reader to be keeping all of these guys and their respective names straight. It's in the context of what is basically an interrogation/verbal attack on one guy, so all points are addressed to that one guy, and he is the focal character of the scene. That gives it an overall structure in which the chief concern is the barrage of arguments against him, and the various arguments he counters with.

8/1/2012 #16
Corinne Tate

I'm not sure I agree with the teacher who claims a story will fall apart with too many characters. Everyone here has made good points, that it's more about the how and why you add them, not so much the numbers. I do think you need to consider your readers, and be wary of introducing the whole cast right from the beginning.

I personally never worry about how many characters I put into any story. I only add characters if I need them. If I were planning a story where a bunch of characters were going to die, I'd probably not even bother to introduce them. My main character would have an impression of them, but names, backgrounds, and characteristics? Probably not. I'd flesh them out as the story progressed, and if they didn't make it to chapter two, they might remain as vague as "the ugly, blond guy," forever.

I have tried to read some published books that introduced too many characters for no apparent reason, and couldn't get into them. I seem to remember picking up one Robert Jordan book, and trying to wade through a history/geneology in the front of the book, and deciding it just wasn't worth it.

If a writer does it well, and gives the character a purpose, then they can add as many as they like. Typically the depth of a character hinges on how much impact they have on a story. But I've also seen writers who will introduce a minor character, flesh them out, make them amazing, and then kill them off senselessly. I stopped reading a Tom Clancy book when he introduced a young security guard; told about her life and her reason for taking the job. Then he blew her up. Quite honestly, it pissed me off. I can see why a writer would do that, to show how senseless violence impacts real people. I just felt it went too far; she was already a protagonist to me.

8/1/2012 #17
JadedPhoenixBurning

Corinne, you'd probably hate reading my first stories then. I knew from the moment that I planned to write a whole series on my OC in My Imaginary Sister that I was going to kill her off in the last couple of chapters of my series. When I did I took the readers by surprise which was exactly what I was going for. BUT, since I was trying to connect the Dukes TV show with the reunion movies I knew I couldn't have a character still there that didn't fit when the series came to an end. Now I wouldn't bring a character to life for only a few chapters with the intent to kill them off but I'm not above killing off my own creations if it is essential to the plot. ;)

8/1/2012 #18
Corinne Tate

I'm not above killing off characters. I just thought it was a bit unfair to introduce the whole, fleshed out character, if she was no more than the human equivalent to furniture. I have no problem with character death, I just didn't like that the introduction was about this character, who was then blown to bits. Tom Clancy can kill of a security guard in his story, and I'd have no issue with it. But this wasn't a security guard; she had a name, a description, a new baby on the way, a husband, and a plan for the future. It felt like a dirty trick to reduce her in the span of a BOOM, to dental records. Sure, real life works that way sometimes. Good people die in senseless ways. But for me, it was just a little too much to get over, right from the beginning of the story, before the protagonist had even been introduced. I just didn't trust the writer after this, though I have read other Clancy novels.

8/1/2012 #19
Lorendiac

I have seen plenty of other professionally published novelists use the same basic trick: "Introduce a new character while providing enough colorful detail to make the reader start to care about her (or him) -- and then the axe falls!"

I've often seen it happen to the obligatory victim in one of the early chapters of a murder mystery, for instance -- so that the reader won't be able to just step back and mentally say, "Ho hum, this homicide detective has another generic corpse on his hands and needs to investigate how she got that way, after he figures out who the heck she was in the first place!"

No, the reader already knows who she was, and regrets her untimely demise, instead of merely seeing her as "just another corpse serving as a plot device."

[Edited in:] Looking back on it, I see I didn't clarify something. I was specifically talking about viewpoint characters who share with us enough of their hopes and dreams and personal worries and so forth to make us start thinking of them as "interesting protagonists" in the opening pages of the novel . . . then it turns out they won't be doing much of anything in the remainder of the book, what with being dead and all.

8/1/2012 . Edited 8/1/2012 #20
Ficta Scriptor

I don't see much wrong with killing off protagonists, as long as it makes sense and adds to the story. Simple 'shock value' isn't good enough; something needs to come from it. Maybe we could see it from their viewpoint, exploring their hopes and dreams, then have a different character step in after their death and make their dreams a reality as some kind of statement. Potentially, that could make the overall message even more powerful, provided it's done 'right'.

Then again, it's nearly always a gruelling experience to read about one of your favourite characters die, but perhaps it's necessary in some cases.

8/1/2012 #21
The Lauderdale
I'm not above killing off characters. I just thought it was a bit unfair to introduce the whole, fleshed out character, if she was no more than the human equivalent to furniture. I have no problem with character death, I just didn't like that the introduction was about this character, who was then blown to bits. Tom Clancy can kill of a security guard in his story, and I'd have no issue with it. But this wasn't a security guard; she had a name, a description, a new baby on the way, a husband, and a plan for the future. It felt like a dirty trick to reduce her in the span of a BOOM, to dental records. Sure, real life works that way sometimes. Good people die in senseless ways. But for me, it was just a little too much to get over, right from the beginning of the story, before the protagonist had even been introduced. I just didn't trust the writer after this, though I have read other Clancy novels.

I don't necessarily mind that, but if the well-characterized human furniture killed off at the start is more interesting than the protagonist, that can be a problem. There is a less-than-great YA book that became memorable to me in this regard. It was "The Terrorist" by Caroline B. Cooney, and it starts with this boy, Billy, realizing that he is holding on to a bomb planted by a terrorist, too late to do anything but minimize the damage to people around him as he himself is blown up. After that the book focussed on his older sister Laura, out to find out who was responsible for the bomb that killed her brother...

...and she I honestly couldn't have cared less about. She just wasn't as fully realized or interesting as that little brother of hers. I finished the book, and it was okay-to-meh in quality, but the POV character who died at the start was so much more vividly realized than the person who ended up being the protagonist.

8/1/2012 #22
LMRaven

I would have to say it depends on how it is being written. It is certainly difficult to have a multitude of main characters in a story but it's not impossible. You just have to know how to layer the characters. Who is going to be in the foreground of a scene and who is going to be in the background? With what characters are you going to have the primary focus on? Secondary? Tertiary? It's kind of like looking at a color wheel. There are a lot of colors but only three primary ones and all the other colors build from those (either complimentary or contrasting)

Once I wrote a Twilight/Vampire Diaries crossover. It was quite ambitious at 69 chapters and a 238k word count. If any of you know both the series, there are quite a few characters (well over 20). While I had the primary focus on four or five characters, the others were more of a supporting cast that did have some spotlight focus in some chapters. It was an experiment that ended up working pretty well.

Now, would I do this as a rule? Definitely not. Most of the time I have primary focus on two or three characters as that is the center of the story. But in that particular case it worked. I'm currently working on the sequel in which I yanked some characters and sent them elsewhere because it wouldn't work in the new story.

8/4/2012 #23
schillingklaus

My stories, even those of trivial length, use to have hundreds of characters cobbled together from a dozen of fandoms.

Readers not able to handle this should stay away from my stories and invest their time in their favourite one or two character stories that flood the same set of fandoms.

10/1/2012 #24
cathrl

Let's be clear here, schillingklaus.

This is a writing forum for people who want to improve their writing. Do you want to do that? If so, you need to start by admitting to yourself that your writing is not currently perfect and that sometimes people will be put off your stories because of it. Not because they didn't appreciate your writing, but because your writing could be better.

10/1/2012 #25
Ursinomancer
If there are many canon characters and you want to write about all of them, it is fine. It is when you write too many OC's and there are a lot of new names to keep track of that some readers who are less patient can lose interest.

I completely agree with this. There are plenty of fandoms that have an ensemble cast with a various number of characters. But the only reason why I'm able to follow, is because they are all canon. I feel like if I'm not getting the characters in the fan fic, I know I can go back to the source material and brush up on the facts.

Multiple OCs can work, but only if they are fleshed out and made into dynamic characters that work well inside their fandom. It's a challenging task, but there are some writers that can handle it.

10/1/2012 #26
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