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In The Stars TV Interview

Disaster Date Night

Author: In The Stars

publishing Contact Sabrina

Writers' Block:

The Conundrum of Too Many Characters

As I work on my new novel in the made-up world I’ve created, *I’m* feeling a little flabbergasted with the vast number of characters I’m meeting. It brings me to the question many authors have asked before: How many characters is too many characters in a novel? I remember when I wrote *In the Stars *and my first editorial pass included the following criticism:

*One weakness in the characters is that there are just too many of them. This is sometimes referred to as the “Cast of Thousands”–the sheer overwhelming number of characters. For example, here’s a list of some of the characters introduced in just the first twenty-five pages of the book:*

*Lyla Garcia...*

And the editor went on to list the numerous characters introduced including “Roger Goodell,” who was not a character, but simply a sports culture reference. (Read *here* about the importance of editorial audience for your novel.) I did follow my editor’s advice, and I pared down the characters as much as I could, giving multiple roles to one character and eliminating backstory characters who didn’t truly enrich the story. As I work on my current story, I can already hear, once again, the “Cast of Thousands” criticism. One could make a counter argument: Some of the most popular books have tons of characters…*Harry Potter*, *Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings*. How have J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin, and J.R.R. Tolkien been able to do that so masterfully? Will it be enough to give yourself a penname that includes initials? Sadly, no.

I found the best explanation for how you can create a vast world of characters, effectively so, by observing how it’s done in *Winnie the Pooh*. It works even though the reader meets nine main characters. Not two main characters with a gang of secondary and tertiary characters, but nine *main* characters.

Characters in a story must each be unique and memorable in five ways: by nomenclature, visually, by purpose, by virtue or fatal flaw, by emotional realm with the hero of the story or their dynamic with the hero. Let’s address each:

*1. Nomenclature*: Ever meet a Suzy who just didn’t look a Suzy? An unfortunate situation to be named a name that just doesn’t match us, and it’s equally unfortunate when a character doesn’t quite go with his/her name. Of course, how each of us perceives a Suzy has to do with our own life experiences and our own name databases of people we’ve encountered. But my advice is take your time deciding on characters’ names. Go with what feels right and make sure they stand out from one another. A book with a David, a Don, a Dan, and a Daniel will not work.

*2. Visually*: One of my favorite character descriptions is Gillian Flynn’s description of Alan in *Sharp Objects*. “Alan was, if anything, thinner than my mother.” Gives a unique frame of reference to another character. “…cheekbones that jutted out of his face so high and sharp his eyes turned into almond slivers. I wanted to administer an IV when I saw him. He overdressed always, even for an evening of sweet drinks with my mother. Now he sat, needly legs jutting out of white safari shorts, with a baby blue sweater draped over a crisp oxford. He sweated not at all. Alan is the opposite of moist.” I’m in love with this description. I love Camille (the protagonist) saying she wants to administer an IV and then concluding with “the opposite of moist.” Flynn’s description is so vivid that I will forever hear the name Alan and pre-judge with the adjectives: emaciated and wimpy. (Apologies to all those named Alan.) Had she said, “Alan was my mother’s skinny, wimpy husband,” he would’ve been forgotten on the next page.

In one sentence, I describe Michael, a down and out mobster, in my recent novel: “His facial hair mimicked bum fluff; gone was his coiffed goatee, so perfect it looked airbrushed.” The act of someone airbrushing a goatee onto someone is vivid. The description solidifies what Michael looked like at one time and contrasts it with what he’s evolved to in current times.

3. You can come at *purpose* from a couple of different angles. First ask: Will the character help the protagonist achieve their goal? Or will he/she try to hurt or stop the protagonist? Then you find the unique and memorable way in which they’ll do so. Another way to explore purpose is through vocation. Rather than just saying your character is a teacher, make them a professor at a university who teaches circus (as long as it fits the personality and plot). He is still a teacher, but he’ll be remembered each time he enters a scene. (Carl Hiaasen is brilliant in this way…and many others.)

*4. Virtue* or *Fatal Flaw*: I love to have fun with this category because a hero can have a fatal flaw and the villain can have a virtue (actually needs to otherwise, the villain would be no threat.) I had some fun with this in *In the Stars* because I had characters who were one of the 12 astrological signs, and I played off descriptions of those signs. My Leo was prideful to a fault. My Gemini was curious and playful, but also two-faced. In this framework, it gave the reader clearly defined characters who might face pitfalls (or overcome obstacles) using their defining characteristics.

*5. Dynamic Hero*: In life, you’ll encounter people who are more static than others, in that they’re going to behave the same no matter who they’re interacting with. In other words, rarely do they take their audience into consideration. You’ll also meet people who are more chameleon-like. Different facets of their personality are brought out, depending on who they are with. Again, in *In the Stars*, our hero Lyla was writing a book about how she got along with other astrological signs. But you don’t need to base your characters on astrology to get it right (although you should always know your characters’ birthdays.) You simply need to say “how does this character make my hero feel?” Even if your hero (or someone you know) is so static in that they are the same around everyone they meet, I would still argue that he/she feels differently inside when they’re around different people. Hence, the expression: “She brings out the best in me.” And by the way, I prefer to have my protagonists be more socially dynamic because I have more fun with their growth and unpredictability.

How many is too many? We still have not arrived at a magic number, but you can help yourself by paying attention to the above categories. Make a list of all of your characters. Ask yourself how they are memorable and unique in each of the five ways. Can you ramp it up? Try adding a quirk or a goal or an emotion that can’t be forgotten. And if you find that two characters overlap in any of these categories, you know it might be time to banish them to a faraway land before the story has even begun. You can always save them for the sequel…

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