Beware the Cast of One Thousand Characters

A few weeks ago over at The Character Comma, we got a question about how many antagonists a story can have. The answer, of course, is “however many the author can handle and however many make sense to the story,” but it brought up discussion of a common issue that writers encounter while writing: too many characters.

I encountered this issue myself in the novel I’m writing now. Initially I had one protagonist, then I decided as I began editing that I would make one of my secondary characters a protagonist as well. (In fact, I wrote about that decision a few weeks ago in another post.) But very recently I started to feel overwhelmed with two main characters. For a week or so I stewed about what to do; I loved both of my protagonists dearly and didn’t want to lose either of their stories. But both protagonists came with their own subplots and friends and enemies, which bumped the quantity of my cast up higher and higher, while dragging down the quality of my story as a whole.

So I soon realized that I bit off more than I could chew. I already had a complex setting and a convoluted plot, and throwing more and more characters into the mix was overwhelming me.

I like to call this problem the “Cast of a Thousand Characters,” because eventually you get to the point where you feel like you do indeed have thousands of characters that you cannot keep under your control. Soon subplots reach dead ends, some conflicts are entirely forgotten and never reach a resolution, and your overall storyline is an utter mess.

Some authors can handle large casts of characters very well — George R. R. Martin, for one. (Although I do think his large cast is the main reason he writes so slowly.)

But for many writers, less is more.

If you find yourself in this situation, I have a solution for you:

Take a close look at your characters and what they contribute to your story. How do they change over the course of the tale? What are the themes in the conflicts they face? Are there any similarities between these characters’ personalities?

Then ask yourself this: Can two characters be combined into one? Can you combine MULTIPLE characters into one mega-character?

If the answer is yes, do it.

For example, I looked at Ros and Maya, my two protagonists, and realized that Ros’s plotline was not nearly as exciting as Maya’s, but Ros had a little more depth to her. Additionally, I felt as if I had added Maya for the sake of diversity; she is a woman of color. But I didn’t want to lose that representation. Plus I wanted to depict a sort of Maiden-Mother-Crone relationship between my protagonists and the antagonist, and cutting either Maya or Ros would mean cutting either the Maiden or the Mother, since Maya was a teenager and Ros was a middle-aged woman.

But Maya does encounter a young girl in her adventures, who could still represent the Maiden figure (though she will not play as prominent a role, not being a protagonist). And if I bumped Maya’s age up and gave all of Ros’s subplots to her, I could easily reduce the size of the cast and combine Maya’s conflicts with Ros’s depth, while still maintaining both the Mother figure and the diversity (since Maya will remain Black). This also gives me the chance to trim some of the fat, so to speak, and examine what plots are truly relevant to the overall story.

On top of it all, both protagonists faced many of the same internal conflicts — grief, issues of insecurity, depression, etc. So combining them made a lot of sense.

It’s sad for me to say goodbye to Ros, to whom I related so closely (largely because she was a self-insert — let’s face it). But in a way she’s “living on” in Maya.

So do the same with your characters. Closely examine which aspects of their plots contribute to the story, and which feel extraneous. Look carefully for any overlap. Copy, cut, and paste where you see fit. Trust me — you’ll feel so relieved when your story is neatly contained under the actions of one character.

On the other hand, if you think you can manage a large cast of characters just fine, go for it! Unfortunately I usually opt for smaller casts, so I don’t have much experience by way of managing so many characters at once. It is, quite honestly, beyond my skill. So I’m not exactly qualified to explain how to take on such a challenge.

However, we do have a post over at The Character Comma about managing large casts of characters,  if you encounter the issue of having too many characters in one scene. Feel free to check that out if you want!

Thank you for reading this post, and as always you are welcome to leave your thoughts below.

Read on, write on, and happy editing!

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