top of page

How many characters are too many?



I once read a whodunnit with a cast list of 47 characters of whom nineteen were potential suspects. Needless to say, it was impossible for me to keep track of who was who, let alone have any hope of solving the mystery.


My reading group has just discussed The Rock Pool, the first and only novel of Cyril Connolly, a well-known author in the twentieth century. The commonest criticism we had was that it was difficult to distinguish between the many characters. This was closely followed by the observations that none of the characters, with the possible exception of the protagonist, had any depth.


This even extends to drama. In Alan Bennett’s The Madness of King George there is one character called Fortnum (who really existed but nearly a hundred years earlier) who is there purely so that a joke can be made about him opening a grocery store. Otherwise he simply clutters up the stage. 


Don’t be a novelist who clutters up the page.


It’s not just the reader who has problems with a lot of characters, it’s the author too. You can’t create three-dimensionality and complexity and a character arc for all of them.


Of course it might be argued that there are vast numbers of characters in a typical Dickens novel. That’s true but they’re big books. And, to be honest, almost all of them are caricatures. Dickens was a genius at creating entertaining puppets but they’re not real people. 


E M Forster in his ‘Aspects of the Novel’ states that there are two types of character: round and flat. Flat characters, he says, are those that can be described in a sentence. Oliver Twist is a wimpy unfortunate whose inborn nobility of nature cannot be destroyed by his circumstances. That’s it. He’s paper thin. He never changes, never grows.


Forster goes on to point out that flat characters are really useful to a novelist because the reader always knows what to expect. They’re instantly recognised; they never need to be reintroduced. Bill Sikes comes on the page and you start booing. The Artful Dodger is the archetypal loveable rogue. 


Round characters are much more difficult to write. The test of a round character, Forster suggests, is that they can surprise you (the reader, but also sometimes the author) but in a convincing way just like real people can. This makes the reader understand them and identify with them. 


I think one of the essentials of quality fiction is that the protagonist is a round character. If the author can also create a rounded antagonist there is the potential to make the reader empathise to some extent with the baddy; that takes conflict to a new level. When a female reader described Anne, a character in my first novel Motherdarling, as a ‘manipulative bitch’, I replied that I thought Anne was a victim. Such disagreements imply the character has taken on a life of their own. Isn’t that what we want when we write them?


So my advice to would-be novelists is to prune the character list. Dean is unnecessary, so get rid of him. If Alice and Abdul can be merged into one person, do so. Aim for three, perhaps four round characters. The others can be flattened. You may need the ticket collector as a witness but he doesn’t need a backstory, a comic accent or even a name.


But on the other hand one of the joys of literature is that you can always find exceptions to every rule. Once upon a time, P G Wodehouse created a character called Psmith. He was an intelligent and charming young man who hid his quick-witted intelligence under a debonair and laid-back exterior. He was in charge of every situation and, when the going got tough, he always had a plan which would succeed in overcoming every obstacle in our hero’s way. And then one day, in a stroke of genius, Wodehouse split this character into two. The charming debonair young man became the brainless Bertie Wooster, the intelligent planner became the servant Jeeves. The only extra refinement needed was to make Wooster the narrator (always have the stupider of a partnership narrating, like Watson and Holmes) and comedy history was born.


One character thus became two. But on the other hand, both Jeeves and Wooster are quintessentially flat characters, whereas Psmith is rounder. Perhaps when you are writing comic fiction, as Wodehouse was and as Dickens started out, flat is better than round.


But generally, for normal-sized novels and especially for whodunnits, kill your characters off before they clutter the page.

52 views5 comments

5 Comments


Nineteen suspects? I really couldn't cope with that. Four or five in a whodunit is plenty for me. I want my reading to expand me but not to confuse me. How many threads need to be woven to construct a story with nineteen possible suspects? As you say, cluttered.

Characters can indeed take on a life of their own, and rounded characters may be viewed differently by different readers. But it is good to see characters evolve, and a novel would have to be at least 1000 pages long to manage this task with a myriad of characters.

Like

I agree that the binary round/ flat construct is over-simplistic ... but it is useful. I do think Psmith ihas more depth than either Jeeves or Wooster: after all even a bas-relief has more depth than a painting. As for popularity, Dickens is still tremendously popular and very few of his characters have depth.


Of course most people access Dickens and Wodehouse through TV and film adaptations and maybe flatness of characters helps explain why some books do so much better on the screen ... because they give scope for the actors to add depth.

Like

I think the same is true of scenes too. You may love your character and really want to share something that happens to them with the reader. But the reader may not feel the same love for them that you do as they have not been privy to all the events (first drafts) that have seen them grow and develop into who they are now. We need to always be mindful whether a scene really moves the plot forward (in a similar way to whether a minor character is necessary). If it doesn't, then cut it out.

Like
Replying to

Kill all your darlings

Like

jonsparks
jonsparks
Jun 22

I broadly agree with most of this, but I think it’s a little unfair to describe Jeeves and Wooster as flat. Perhaps this points to a deeper problem: the binary split between ‘round’ and ‘flat’. Fine for making the point, but grossly simplistic for describing most characters in real books.

And I’m not convinced Psmith really is rounder. There must be a reason why the Psmith books are rarely read now while Jeeves and Wooster are enduringly popular. Besides, I have read a couple of Psmith, and don’t find him that interesting. Is he really rounded, or just a bas-relief?


Like
bottom of page