Too Many or Too Few – How Many Characters?

Hey everyone!

So last night, I was at the Doctor Who convention Gallifrey One (what a blast!!!) when I attended a panel that discussed sci-fi/fantasy movies in 2014, a ‘year in review.’  And one of the panel members made a good point:

The Hobbit was a technically sound trilogy, well made, a visually beautiful movie, but…it fell short of The Lord of the Rings.  And the reason why?  For the panelist, he felt nothing for the characters.  He wasn’t interested in their trials and tribulations.  When one died, he felt nothing.

When I realized I felt the same way, I began discussing it with my friend, and came up with a plausible reason: there were too many protagonists.  13 Dwarves, 1 Hobbit, 1 Wizard.  Plus in movie #2 and 3, there were two Elves and Bard.  Not counting some of the other heroes that showed up in the 3rd movie, that’s 18 characters we’re supposed to invest our emotions in.

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So I’m wondering if there is a correlation.  If there are too many characters in a movie, does it become too much for the average audience member and they lose the ability to care about the characters, and therefore do not care for the outcome of the story?  Can the same be said about novels?

For me, at least, keeping track of characters in a novel is easier.  At least, good novels.  That of course gets into another topic all together: some extremely complex novels are easier to follow than others.

In any case, it has me wondering if there is such a thing as too many characters.  Do you, as a reader and/or a movie-goer, find that there is a limit?  Do you lose interest in a story after so many characters?

On the other hand, I also think it is possible for there to be too few characters.  For me, most (not all) stories with only one or two characters in the entire novel is boring.  Yeah it would be easier to invest in those characters, but think about how Harry Potter would be if there was only Harry and Voldemort, and none of the other characters: no Hermione, no Ron, no Dumbledore…

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I’m not saying there is a formula: for this type of story, there must be so many characters.  Every situation is unique, certainly.  I loved Cast Away and there were only a handful of characters in that.  So what’s the secret?  Is there a secret?

What do you think?  What are some of your favorite movies or novels with a large number of characters?  Or few?And here is another question to consider: does the length of the story dictate how many central characters you should have in a story?  Would 18 main characters be okay in a series vs. a movie?

I’ve not actually seen any Game of Thrones episodes, nor have I read the novels the series is based upon.  However, I do know that there is a very large cast of characters in there.  Yet that series is insanely popular, and even though characters are killed off left and right, people are getting very invested in the characters.

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So perhaps that is the key: the number of characters should depend upon how much time you invest in each of them, making each one a fully-realized character, with emotions and desires and fears.Maybe that is the secret: give all of the characters the time that they deserve.Thanks for reading!
-Jon Wasik

8 thoughts on “Too Many or Too Few – How Many Characters?”

  1. I love all of the books you mentioned and I think you’re right. I didn’t feel sad when any characters died in the Hobbit. With A Game Of Thrones, the perspectives change, so you see from that character’s point of view (which is why I don’t hate Sansa in the book as much as the show), so maybe that’s a reason it’s easy to like the characters in that series.

    1. See I was wondering about perspective change. I do that in my novels, and some friends love that, others hate it. I’m excited to see what other readers will say when my book comes out.

      So if that is the case with Game of Thrones, perhaps it is because changing perspectives gives the reader the chance to invest emotions in them.

      1. I’m one of the people that like it. I find that if there are a lot of characters, I forget their names or relations to other characters unless they’re mentioned a lot, ( I forget all the dwarves names in the Hobbit, and the minor characters in GoT). Change of perspective allows for different stories to be told at the same time too!

  2. This is a very interesting concept. When you think about it, though, I tend to think that the thirteen dwarves with silly, rhyming names was really meant to make the children’s story Tolkien intended it to be more silly and entertaining to children. But obviously the movie makers couldn’t just take out a few characters (thanks to hardcore fans that can sometimes be a bit ungrateful). Sorry for the mini rant, but I definitely agree that too many characters (at least if their all introduced at once with little characterization) is a bit of a bad way to go.

    1. Looking back at this post, I think one of the things for writers to watch out for: if you’re going to put in a hero, or 2, or ten, make sure you give each one the attention they deserve to make them all worthwhile to the audience.

      Perhaps that’s where they failed on The Hobbit: Thorin was the only one of the Dwarves given any real attention, while a couple of his closest companions got some love and attention too. But most…not so much. Rand Dwarf # 9 dying is about as sad as Random Storm Trooper #1138.

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