I’d like to talk about characters.
I’ve just finished reading The Looking Glass Wars, by Frank Beddor. I gave it 3 out of 5 stars. I don’t want to get into a full review of the entire novel (short version: great, imaginative story with stunning detail, but poor structure, plot holes, and problems with the prose), but one particular thing the book left me thinking about is the characters. I feel like the book had too many characters, and several of them came off as flat, undeveloped characters that didn’t serve a real role in the story.
How many characters does your story need? How much detail does each character need? How much do they need to be developed?
You could find thousands of different answers to those questions on various writing blogs. I’ve read a few before, and they all seem to approach the question from a different perspective. Some answer from the perspective of the role the character plays in the story: are they the protagonist, antagonist, love interest, sidekick, or something else? Others approach the questions from the point of view of character archetypes: the orphan hero, the mysterious traveler, the trickster, the wise sage, and so on.
I tend to approach this question from a slightly different point of view: are we being told this character’s story, or are they a minor player in someone else’s story?
Allow me to explain.
If you’re writing a novel from a single character’s point of view, then you’re writing their story. The Harry Potter novels are, when it comes down to it, Harry’s story. There are sporadic times when we see another character’s point of view, but it’s rare in those books to be taken away from Harry and see events going on elsewhere. He’s the central focus. In a situation like this, any other characters exist in roles relative to the main character.
You see this in movies all the time as well. Any superhero movie tends to focus primarily on the hero. We see a great deal of Batman or Superman’s life, and very little of what is going on with anyone else. If we do see events taking place away from the character, it’s only based on how those events relate to the main character. For example, if we see what Lois Lane is up to on her own, it’s usually only to show the danger she’s about to get into so Superman can come and save her. That still makes it Superman’s story about how he rescued Lois Lane, not Lois Lane’s story about how she was rescued by Superman.
You can also have a central group point of view that functions the same way, if the characters remain together all the time. A movie like Saving Private Ryan is a good example. The entire movie follows six soldiers on a journey together. We’re never separated from those characters, and they’re on the same journey with the same goal the entire time. Other characters who appear serve a role in relation to them. The group encounters people who need to be rescued, but the focus remains on the soldiers doing the rescuing. They encounter other groups of soldiers, but only for as long as it takes to question them about where Private Ryan is. When the main group moves on, we never see these minor characters again.
So in the above examples, we have a single central point of view (whether it’s the point of view of a single person or of a unified group). Other characters exist only in relation to the main character(s). We never see more of those minor characters’ lives, so they don’t need much development. This is a good thing, because in a short book or movie, there’s only room for so much development.
But what if you have multiple POVs?
A lot of people say that for books around 50,000 words or so, you should stick with a single point of view (or maybe alternating between two points of view, such as between the two main characters in a romance novel as their relationship develops). This is because 50,000 words is only really enough time to get deeply into one or maybe two people’s lives. It’s better to focus your attention on them as much as possible so that they get the greatest amount of development. If you split such a novel up between 10 characters’ lives, we’d barely get the chance to know each of them.
Now, longer works are very different. Robert Jordon’s The Wheel of Time series, for example, has 15 books (14 + a prequel) totaling well over 4,400,000 words. There are no less than a dozen “primary” main characters who each have their own ongoing story throughout the series, and then hundreds of other supporting characters that end up tied to one of the main characters. In essence, by the later parts of the series, each main character develops a “team” of their own. Matrim Cauthon has the Band of the Red Hand, and multiple well-developed characters seen with him regularly throughout their many adventures. Perrin Aybara has the combined Two Rivers, Mayener, and Aiel forces he commands from book 6 onward, and his own team of supporting characters. Egwene Al’vere ends up leading the Aes Sedai with her own team of supporting characters.
So by thinking about a story like this, there ends up being several “tiers” of characters. When working on my own novels, I’ve developed four tiers that each character can be divided into. These go from the main characters, to their major supporting characters, to minor supporting members of their teams, to miscellaneous (often unnamed) characters.
An example of this setup would go like this:
Tier 1: Gabriella Palladino (Main Protagonist)
–Tier 2: Gabby’s major supporting characters: Her family (Mother, Father, older brothers Frankie and Anthony, older sister Adrianna, nephew Dante), plus her best friend Callia Gainsborough.
—-Tier 3: Gabby’s minor supporting characters: Classmates at her high school (Jacob, Rick, Charlie, Erica), her brother’s friend Matt.
——–Tier 4: Miscellaneous unnamed students, teachers, police officers, etc.
Based on that kind of breakdown, it would make sense that Gabby would get the most character development. She’s the one who is the central focus of her scenes, and we see supporting characters (such as her family) only as they relate to her point of view. We do not, for example, follow her dad to work and find out what his life is like away from his family. We do, however, follow Gabby to school and see parts of her life away from her family.
And that’s just one “team.” There’s also another team for Tock Zipporah, who has her own central story to follow. She also has major supporting characters, minor characters, and miscellaneous characters who are all a part of her ongoing story.
Here is also where the short stories I’m writing become fun. I mentioned recently that I’m working on a short story, Belladonna, which follows the story of Mae Southeby. Mae is a Tier 2 character in the main set of novels, which means she gets a lot of screen time and action, but we aren’t really reading her story; we’re reading Gabby and Tock’s story. Tier 2 characters can get tons of development, but they’re not the central focus. Writing a separate short story about that character gives them a chance to be Tier 1 in their own story. That’s also what I did with Radiance; Maria Vasquez becomes a Tier 2 character in Gabby’s team in the later books, but in Radiance, she’s Tier 1.
This is also how spinoffs work. The Sarah Jane Adventures gives the character Sarah Jane Smith, from Doctor Who, the chance to move from a supporting character to a main character. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does the same thing with characters from The Avengers. In each of those series, there will be a new set of major, minor, and miscellaneous supporting characters. Plus, if a character from the original series guest stars on them, they technically become Tier 2 since they’re only a guest on the spinoff.
So based on all this, the question isn’t really “How many characters do you need?” It’s a question of “How many Tier 1 MAIN characters do you need?” In a shorter book (50,000 words), there should only be one or two Tier 1 main characters. Each of them can have as many supporting characters as they need, so long as those characters remain tied to the main character. In a longer work (100k-150k), you can easily have three, four, or five Tier 1 main characters, each of which can have their own groups (family members, friends, coworkers, classmates, comrades in a military squad, etc). Just remember who the MAIN characters are, the ones who get the most central focus, and think of the other characters in terms of how they support the main characters’ stories.