How many main characters are too many?
In my book, The Six and the Crystals of Ialana, I have seven main characters. Even though the title reflects “six”, the seventh character did not have the same mission as the Six. However, this person played an important role in the progression of the story.
I hoped that readers would not be confused so I introduced the seven slowly, and not all at once. This would give readers the opportunity to get to know them first before the pacing of the story moved too fast for them to keep track. I realize our short term memory has its limitations.
When we write our story and begin to introduce characters, think of it as going to a party with 50-60 people attending, and you know no one there at all. Everybody at the party, except you, know all the other people well. Each person comes up to you and introduces themselves to you. How many names do you remember? Probably only a few. Maybe, by the end of the evening, you’d know several more, but definitely not all.
Think of your reader as that person who is at that party, and show some consideration towards them by not introducing everyone at the same time and expecting them to remember all the names right away. In fantasy writing, this can be especially tricky since we don’t use names like Bill, Mary or Bob, but rather more exotic and often made up names. This puts an added burden on our memory banks!
I also alluded to other characters near the beginning of the book to give a heads up to the reader who they may be encountering later as main players, but did not actually introduce them in person.
If a character plays little to no role in the progression of a story or plot, he or she (or it) must go. If you were the CEO of a company, and you noticed as you came into the office each day, an employee shuffling his or her feet out in the hallway, drinking endless cups of coffee, and interacting with no other employee in a meaningful way, your choice might be obvious. It is the same choice a writer must make–even if this loafing, useless character is much beloved to the writer. It might be a character you always wanted to write about, and you have come to love and know this person like a brother or sister, but they are contributing nothing to the story. If that is the case, find another story to put them in. Make them your main character and give them a role to play, a job to do. Perhaps this employee/character was not given a specific job or purpose. It was not their fault. We can’t blame them. It is your responsibility as a writer to find a job for this person and ensure they do it, even if a small but important one.
I will be writing more about my individual characters in my books in 2015. I will not give away any plot lines or use spoilers, so you will still feel free to read my books and enjoy the twists and turns in the stories. I would like to give my readers the opportunity to get to know my characters as well as I do, but it is not essential to read about them here since I feel the characters in my books do their job well enough. You will not be scratching your head, wondering who the heck “Blaidd” is, and what does he have to do with “Seryn”? You will know, just from reading the book. If you’d like to find out more about them, my blog is the place.