Someone once told me we couldn’t be friends because they already had their five. I looked at them curiously. I had no idea there was a limit to the number of friends one could have, but indeed with some people – particularly those living here in Los Angeles – there is. Five appears to be a magic number for which people feel they are comfortable.
It got me thinking. Could the same be true for my readers? Was there such a thing as an ideal number of principal characters?
Writers know too many names on a page or in a scene can confuse the reader. While there is no rule-of-thumb for the number of characters an author may use in a work, there is a limit to the number the reader is comfortable with before they begin to feel overwhelmed. Please note, I’m not talking about the over-all number of minor and reappearing characters in a book, but those that actually interact with the protagonist for the purpose of moving the story forward.
Hence my rule of five.
- Limit the number of primary characters to a handful. This frequently allows the author to add color and depth to their personalities. Alice becomes not just the girl with blue eyes, but my former college roommate, the girl who got all the guys, etc.
- Consider combining the roles of principal characters. Do you really need five investigators? Would two, maybe three be better, allowing you to show the conflict between them?
- Make certain your characters names are not too similar to each other. I’m good friends with Maryann, Marilyn and Madeline, but I’d never write a novel with the three of them in the same room. It’s too easy with today’s speed reader to slip by the names and mix them.
- Ancillary characters don’t always need to be named. Consider referring to them by their job description. For instance, the intern, the receptionist, or perhaps by a physical description; the pharmacist with the bulbous nose.
- First and last names are wonderful and frequently used alternatively, as well as a nickname. But make certain it’s used frequently enough that the reader will remember that Worm when used on page 192, was Marty’s nickname from high school that you introduced in chapter one.
Of course rules are made to be broken. Tolstoy was famous for the number of characters in his novels and their pseudonyms. I remember having to make a chart to follow all the characters in his books. But most readers today all multi-taskers, they may be watching TV, surfing the internet or perhaps even texting while reading your novel. Keeping it simple may guarantee your reader will remember your book and even pick up the next.
Oh, and by the way, I ran into my I-already-have-my-five-friends the other day. She wanted to get together. It seems her BFF had moved away and she suddenly found herself with time on her hands. She wondered if we might hang out.
Nancy Cole Silverman says she has to credit her twenty-five years in radio for helping her to develop an ear for storytelling. In 2001 Silverman retired from news and copywriting to write fiction fulltime. In 2014, Silverman signed with Henery Press for her new mystery series, The Carol Childs’ Mysteries. The first of the series, Shadow of Doubt, debuted in December 2014 and the second, Beyond a Doubt, debuted July 2015. Coming soon, in 2016, is the third in the series, Without A Doubt. For more information visit www.nancycolesilverman.com