I’ve been reading Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire series. I finished Book II, King of Thorns, a ways back. You can read the review for Prince of Thorns here. And King of Thorns here. They are good books. I’ve enjoyed them, even though the main character is largely evil. However, while reading them I noticed a flaw or weakness about which I will write today. Basically, he’s got too many characters and only one perspective. The main character is Jorg Ancrath who is on the path to become Emperor of the Broken kingdom. The only perspective (other than diary entries) in the book is his. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. But the point I’m making, is that when you have only one point-of-view character, you should limit the number of supporting characters as well. I think he’s had over a dozen, and I, personally, can’t keep them all straight.
There are a few exceptionally distinctive ones, like the two leucrotta, his love interest, and his major antagonists in the book who I could follow with ease, but the rest of his Road Brothers pretty much blended together. After two books, only one or two really stuck out in my mind. The problem is, of course, that he had too many of them. One or two of them are killed off every couple chapters or so, but since there are so many of them it doesn’t have a great impact. The books are still great, but I just feel this weakness is worth expounding upon.
Clearly, the number of characters an author can successfully juggle is a function of the number of pages in the book. If you are writing a two hundred page novel, you’re going to have far less leeway than in a seven hundred page behemoth. That should be obvious. But I want to further point out, that the number of characters is also limited by the number of point-of-view characters you have. First of all, jumping into the head of a second character makes that character all the more real; it fleshes them out more fully by describing their thoughts and actions from their point-of-view. Jumping into a third, does likewise. Additionally, the characters each of these relates to will also be fleshed out more fully, through the actions they take with respect to the new point-of-view character and their respective relationships. For example, a secondary character might have a parent or sibling, and that relationship will help fix those characters in mind. Remaining in a single point-of-view character limits such considerations to that character alone. I would say that for one character, you’ll probably be able to swing maybe five to seven supporting characters successfully. Beyond that, the attachment the reader feels to additional characters will become more tenuous.
Oh, and obviously, the number of point-of-view characters is limited by the length of the book.