Fantasy Writing: Number of Characters

I’ve read a lot of fantasy in my life. Nowadays, I’ve started making a focused effort to write and publish my own work. One issue that seems to pop up and bear investigation and discussion is the number of major characters in a piece of literature. Many modern fantasy stories have a sizable number of such major characters, so much so, that it is difficult to categorize any single one as the “main character;” in fact, I would argue that in many cases, the notion of a main character is subsiding and being replaced by the notion of  several major characters. Each character provides his or her own point of view and plotline. The author then weaves these all together to form a complete story, switching from one character and one point of view to another, and back and forth throughout, so that the whole resembles a kind of tapestry woven from the various plot threads. If done poorly, this can lead to confusion, or, if there are too many plot threads, this can lead to boredom as the reader fails to become invested in any of the characters. Masters of the craft, though, seem to have a knack for building up tension in each character’s plot thread, and switching point of view in such a way that the reader must continue reading, not only to find out what happens with the one character, but also with the next. Sometimes the plotlines blend for a time, as two or three major characters travel together or what-have-you, then separate. But my question is: is there a maximum number of characters that one can effectively have in a series?


I don’t want to give a specific number but I believe there is. The more major characters you add to a story, the more diluted the central plotline becomes. Often when I have read lengthy novels or trilogies, or what-have-you, and get to the end, I look back and am fascinated with how little each character actually accomplished over sometimes thousands of pages. They were driven from their castle, puttered around in a foreign city, then returned home with an army to retake the castle. And that’s all. The reason this happens is because of the number of major characters. Few novels these days tell a single story; instead, there are multiple sub-stories woven together. Obviously, if there are four sub-stories in an 800 page book, then each sub-story usually only gets about 200 pages or so. Clearly, the writer cannot accomplish as much in that shorter length. Hence, as I noted above, the characters are limited in what they can do, too.


One of my favorite series is the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (now being completed by Brandon Sanderson after Robert Jordan’s death). It is, however, a testament to the problem of having too many major characters. I suppose, theoretically, Rand  Al’Thor as the Dragon Reborn is the main character, but that is only a technicality. All the major characters have consumed a comparable number of pages. And the result is a very LONG series. I think they’re at book fourteen, now. Hopefully, Brandon Sanderson will be able to finish it. But let’s just go through a list of the major characters (and this is just off the top of my head): Rand, Mat, Perrin, Egwene, Nynaeve, Elayne, Min, Aviendha… all right, that’s eight; I was expecting more, so maybe it’s not too bad. Except most of those demand equal or near equal time in the books. Is there any wonder why the series is so long? I enjoy the series. I really do. But because of the number of plotlines and major characters the series is so long that I’ll never sit down and read the entire bloody thing again. Which is a shame, because parts of it were really good. Well, the whole series was good. It’s just too much of a colossus to embark on again.


And that, I think, is a danger one risks when one writes. Characters have a tendency to multiply as you go along. The disciplined writer must learn to rein in his tendency to keep adding character upon character, and plotline upon plotline, or the end result might just be a literary mess.

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