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Why do we read books and become fans in the first place? Sure, sometimes you can fall in love with specific worlds, but let’s be honest; it’s really the characters that win our hearts. The perfect group of characters is what makes a book go from a good read to a fantastic I-want-to-read-this-book-again-and-again read.
But as a writer, balancing out how many characters you need for a story can be hard, especially when it comes to the main characters. Sure, you always have your protagonist, but sometimes, you need more than one, whether you change points of view, or you have a group of companions as your main cast, most of the time you’re not going to just have one character in the limelight.
So how do you craft your Fellowship? Here’s some pointers and things to think about.
The duo is always a great option. Think Sherlock and Watson. Whether this comes in the flavor of best friends or a hero-sidekick thing, siblings/twins, or even your MC and their romantic interest, everyone loves a solid duo. Duos are the most versatile of main character groups, because being made up of only two people, it is pretty much to be expected that they are going to be joined by other characters along the way. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam are the main duo, but they are joined by Merry and Pippin, as well as Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and Boromir later. Even though the Fellowship as a whole really qualifies as more than just a duo, you can break them up into duos and trios as the series progresses, which is a great tactic for fantasy/quest stories. Romances usually feature duos for the main couple, but this too can branch off as he and she usually have their besties, or family members along with them, sometimes creating sub-duos, but your couple should always be your main duo. If it’s a duo like Sherlock and Watson, they should always take precedence over any other characters. Best friend duos should never have one of the other usurped by supporting characters, unless that is purposefully part of the plot.
Trios are my personal favorite. I used this tactic in my Anthony Maxwell book with Anthony, Tobs, and Scamp as the main trio. The trio is also very versatile, and sometimes a duo can become a trio with like the addition of Castiel’s character to the Winchesters’ duo in Supernatural. Trios are perfect for series books and procedurals like mysteries (such as in Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood series or Percy, Annabeth and Grover in the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan) because they have enough characters to offer differing opinions, but not too many to confuse the reader by having to add too many characters to a storyline. Trios can also be branched out into four people (like the Three Musketeers plus D’Artagnan). Maybe your trio picks up another member along the way or there is another, secondary character, that they sometimes go to for help and can be an honorary member of their gang. The important thing to remember when writing trios is that even if you do add more supporting characters along the way, the trio, especially if it is one loved by the fans, should always stay the main focus of the story. Good characters are never going to get boring, and your readers will always want to see more from them.
So What’s the Perfect Number for a Group?
Sometimes, you need more than just a duo or trio. Some stories need to share space with more main characters. I ran into this with my Modern Tales of Na Fianna series, because there are a lot of characters the reader needs to get to know, and I put emphasis on different ones throughout the series. But my main group is Ciran’s Company, a group of six friends who got thrown together in Book One because they were all going on a mission to rescue their family members who were being kept prisoners by the Goblins. There were even more characters introduced in this story between King Eamon, and his Captain of the Guard Killian, as well as Ciran’s family. Balancing this many characters can be tough and from a reader’s perspective, very confusing, if done incorrectly. The best way to introduce a bunch of characters is to do it gradually. Think about the beginning of The Hobbit. That book featured a company of 15 characters including Bilbo and Gandalf, but we were introduced to the dwarves a couple at a time as they came to Bilbo’s door. While we don’t truly get to know a lot of their personalities from the book, the idea is a good one. Start off with your main character and his closest family members or companions and work outward from there. I also like to think about Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott. Rose was introduced to her seven cousins by the eldest of them, who pretty much explained their characters in a quirky and humorous way. The reader is presented with a group of very different and unique characters and doesn’t have a hard time figuring out which boy was which throughout the rest of the story.
Five to seven characters is a decent number for a larger group of main characters. It’s not so many that your readers will be going…wait, who was that again? And few enough that you, as a writer will be able to create several characters with distinct personalities that will not just all run together after a while as can happen when you are forced to come up with too many characters. It is also enough characters to be able to accomplish deeds of daring do, or a good crew for heists and such (Like the group in the show, Leverage or Kaz’s crew in Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo). They can even be joined by other people too if needed, my advice on that subject is to introduce any other characters you might be planning to join with them separately so they are not lost in the main group. Then you can have fully established characters to work with once you join groups up so you don’t have to do a lot of awkward characterization when you should be focusing on your action scenes.
How Many is Too Many?
Yes, it is possible to have too many characters. I have written several books where I had to scrap characters from the original idea because when I started writing it, there just didn’t seem to be a need for them or their inclusion would just complicate the storyline. This is a worthy sacrifice for the sake of your story, and if you like the character you can always use him in another book or even a sequel, but it is important not to swamp your readers with too many characters.
If you think your book might have too many characters, here’s an easy way to figure that out. Set aside the MC and the characters you know need to be in the story and look at each of the others. Think about what they add to the plot, and how their existence effects the plot and the MC. Everything in a book needs to tie together, or the story will be confusing, so if you add characters that you think might be a cool addition, but really have no effect on the plot whatsoever you may just end up confusing readers. I have read various books where it’s pretty obvious the author just threw in a character either to prove some kind of point or for comic relief or something but the character never really fits in and it just turns out to be more annoying than anything. So learning how many characters is too many, is a good lesson both for new writers and even for experienced ones to remember. The last thing you want is for your readers to wonder, why was that guy even in this book? If you’re not sure yourself, this is a good question to ask your trusted beta readers.
So there are some tips on how to figure out how many characters you need in your book, and how to handle them. I hope this might have offered some assistance J Let me know how you decide how many characters your book needs. Does it just happen? Or do you take a lot of time and consideration with it?