It is natural when writing a story to include many different characters, from your protagonist whose journey readers will follow throughout, to sub characters who play a more minor, but still important role, to those who appear only for a fleeting moment such as a shopkeeper or waiter.
The question around whether a book can have too many characters is an interesting one, and the answer is complex. Really, it is all about how you present your characters in the novel as to whether the reader ends up feeling as though there is character overload or not.
The danger of introducing too many characters to your book is that readers end up losing track of them. There is nothing more irritating then enjoying a good story and then suddenly becoming confused by many different characters being together in one room, or having to flick back to remember who is who and how they are related to one another. Essentially, confusing the reader is a big no-no.
So how do you know if you have too many characters in your book, and how do you avoid character overload? Here are some useful tips:
Think about names
Characters names are important. If you use too many long, foreign, overly complicated ones it will be easy for your reader to get muddled. That’s not to say your characters can’t have strong, revealing names, but try to make sure they are all memorable and different to one another.
Since I have been writing a memoir, names of others was an issue in the beginning, whether or not to use real names. When writing my rough draft by hand, I did not use names then. I was immediately fearful of using real names, and others suggested not doing so.Weird that I had not been able then to think of any names, as there have been so many names I could think of. I have gradually be adding names to others mentioned in my memoir, including names as basic as Bob, Tom, Josh, Jennifer, Sally and such. (If you read my blog in the past, yo will know that I have a fascination for the name Bob). To avoid confusion, I've tried not to use the same first name more than once, which seems hard to do, since I have known more than one Jennifer in my lifetime (Who hasn't?) It has been advised in this trope against doing something like this in fiction, but I'm to sure how this applies to a memoir. I'll admit I did use some similar-sounding names, Andres and Andrew, for instance. The person IDd as "Andres" was based on a real Hispanic person I knew and I wanted to avoid using something that began with the same letter as the real person's name. I honestly see nothing wrong with repeating names when writing something based on one person's real-life experiences, if that person did know more than one person with the same first name, and most likely this was true. And just how does this name trope apply with names that can be first or last names, such as Thomas, Gordon, Douglas, Gabriel, Gilbert, Martin and such? I cannot seem to find any reference to that sort of thing. In most cases, I did not bother with last names, if I did not remember the real person's last name, or if I never knew their last name to begin with. This was mainly true of people I met once or twice in college. Some of the people I mentioned in a chapter on something in college were composites, since most of them were only mentioned in this particular passage. in some cases, however, I made one person into two or more separate people I don't know if this is a common writing practice, but I did it this way in hopes of disguising that particular person even further. In other cases, I did not remember the real person's name at all, and just left those persons unnamed. In most cases, this was in reference to someone who I only mention once in the memoir.
Make introductions count
If you want to make sure a reader remembers your character, give them a strong and unique description when you first introduce them. Unusual details about their appearance, the way they talk, act or move will help readers remember who’s who.
Are they different enough from one another?
If your characters all sound and look the same they could easily all merge into one. Make sure your characters stand out from one another to avoid a reader feeling like they are just in a world where everyone is a clone of your protagonist.
Who is speaking?
When you have lots of characters in a room it is easy for conversations to get cluttered. Try to make it clear when it comes to who is saying what to ensure the reader doesn’t become confused and lose the plot!
Are there too many stories for readers to keep up?
There is no reason why you can’t have several stories unravelling within your novel. However, if you have too many important characters in your book it will be difficult for readers to follow, and indeed, remain interested in them all.
Do characters stories link together? Do we care about them? How do they influence the main story?
Really think about how each and every one of your characters drives the story forwards. If they don’t affect your story in some way you need to think about whether they really have a role in your book in the first place. If in doubt, take them out - and see how your story reads without them.
Character overload is something we can all be guilty of and is something definitely worth paying attention to. Try to spread out introductions and think realistically about how many characters your readers can follow as well as whether they really belong in your story- if they don’t your readers probably won’t find them that memorable, to begin with!
In short, I have been trying to include as many and as few others as necessary to my memoir.