The fantasy literature genre, like any other genre, evolves over time. The standards of good fiction of yesteryear are not necessarily the standards of today. One of the elements of fantasy literature that has evolved through the years, and one that I’ve touched on, if only slightly, in other posts, is the number of characters. No, I’m not talking about the tendency of characters to multiply as you write—I’ve written about that directly before—instead I want to explore the issue of whether or not there should be just one main character or many. Of course, I say that, but I think in most pieces of fiction there is just one main character, but there may also be a whole bevy of support characters with very detailed backgrounds and interactions.
Take Robert Jordan’s “The Wheel of Time,” for example. The main character is unquestionably Rand Al’Thor, the Dragon Reborn. However, there is a whole host of “lesser” characters (Perrin, Mat, Nynaeve, Egwene, Elayne, Aviendha… just to name a few). Most of these “lesser” characters warrant an entire story thread all to themselves. And, at a certain level, it seems these “lesser” characters are almost as important as the main character. We come to care about them as much as we do the main one, and we learn much of their stories. In fact, I don’t feel comfortable calling them “minor” characters, because there is just too much time and development devoted to each one individually. I don’t know what to call them. Maybe “major” characters? That seems to work. And I have used that term elsewhere: actually I’ve gone further, and distinguished between major major characters and just major characters. I think, in the above, Perrin, Mat, and Egwene would be major major, and the others merely major (are you confused yet?). Basically, there are more shades than just “main,” “major,” and “minor,” so those can serve as general groupings, not discrete categories.
Anyway, every writer must make a decision about how many main/major characters he or she is going to write about. As I’ve said elsewhere, there is an upper limit here. One cannot write an intelligible piece of fiction featuring fifty major characters. It just won’t work. “The Wheel of Time,” as noted above, has somewhere around seven major characters. I think that is pretty close to the max. The problem is, of course, the resulting story is invariably incredibly long. “The Wheel of Time” is currently on the fourteenth (or is it the fifteenth) and last book. So, I guess the point of this post is to warn starting writers about the critical decision that they must make concerning the number of characters. And I’ve found, through my own experience, that it is best to answer this question sooner rather than later.