Friday, November 4, 2011

The Scourge of Too Many Characters

Dickens did it. So did Dr. Seuss. Oh, and don't forget about Tolstoy. Man, he was the worst offender of all.

These authors jammed their books so full of characters that after a while, you start forgetting who is who. It's not that I dislike these guys--I respect their work very much--but part of me has always liked books where you can keep everyone straight without resorting to a flowchart.

I'm looking at you, Tolkien.

And, as with most things I rail about, I'm guilty of it, too. In my current wip, I've gone overboard. I literally couldn't tell you how many characters I've introduced because I've lost count. I think I've done a good job of distinguishing them from each other, but still. I'll go back and read over sections of my first draft and realize I've totally forgotten about certain characters, allowing them to vanish altogether.

I'm of two minds about this. During the writing process, I've enjoyed conjuring up a myriad of characters because it keeps things lively. But I'm wondering if I've passed a tipping point, and if readers will be overwhelmed with the sheer number of people and creatures who inhabit my book.

Have you ever run into this issue? I'm nearly done with the first draft, and I realize I'll have to consolidate some characters and drop others, but how do you draw that line between who stays and who goes? I'd be interested to know.


  1. Robert Jordan was also guilty of this to the most extreme I've ever seen in his Wheel of Time series. Even reading them straight through (I'm still on book 11 or 12) I lost track of characters and even forgot about several before they would suddenly pop up several books later. At times I even thought Jordan forgot about certain characters that seemed to be very important, then vanished. Too many characters can be a headache to keep track of and I designed a map for my fantasy series and created little cardboard pieces that I moved around the map to keep track of every character in the story. I've found that if I write in characters and they never seem to have any purpose for hanging around, I will either write them out of the story or kill them off quickly. That way only the characters moving the plot forward are still included.

  2. In my experience, don't worry about it just yet. After you finish your first draft, climb up on that tower with your high powered rifle and start picking off the non-essentials. Anyone who doesn't have to be there needs to go.

  3. Hahahaha, yeah, I guess I'll have to be pretty brutal in the editing process.

  4. I like your idea of moving cardboard pieces around a map, that takes a lot of self-discipline. I just fell into the Robert Jordan trap the other day when I rediscovered an important character who I'd completely forgot about. The guy would've come in very handy, too, since he's a doctor and my other characters have been getting roughed up by bad guys. Well, I'll have to reclaim him once I start the editing process. Thanks for your comment!

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