The Stranger Things 4 promotional poster.

There is no correct number of characters that works for every story. It varies widely depending on how long a story is, what medium it’s presented in, and what kind of characters we’re talking about. The writer’s skill also plays a role, as clever presentation can sometimes squeeze 11 pounds of character into a 10-pound story. Even the type of story matters: a slasher movie needs a larger-than-average cast so there are more people to get slashed!* 

So it’s not easy to say how many characters a hypothetical story should have, and yet, we can all think of a story we’ve watched or read that had too many. Such stories aren’t difficult to spot. The plot feels unfocused, and no character gets the development they need. Why does this happen? Let’s look at a few examples and see if we can find out. 

Spoiler Notice: Nancy Drew and Stranger Things 4

1. All Systems Red 

Cover art from All Systems Red featuring Murderbot

The first novella of The Murderbot Diaries, All Systems Red, is easily the best story I’ve read in the last five years. It has an amazing protagonist, well-paced action, and a fascinating world. It also has too many characters. Well, too many human characters, that is. In addition to the titular Murderbot, the story has eight major named characters: Mensah, Gurathin, Bharadwaj, Volescu, Pin-Lee, Arada, Overse, and Ratthi. Oh no, I’m already starting to forget them! 

That’s a lot of characters, especially for a story that clocks in at around 31,000 words. They’re also introduced all together, right at the beginning, making them even harder to remember. By the end, most of them effectively congeal into an amorphous blob* called “human.” Is Murderbot saying something? If not, the dialogue belongs to a human. Is Murderbot doing something? If not, it’s a human’s turn. 

The main reason this happens is that All Systems Red doesn’t have anything distinctive for most of its human characters to do. They don’t have specific jobs like the crew of a ship,* nor do they occupy distinct social roles. They’re just around, often getting into trouble so Murderbot needs to rescue them. That’s fun to watch, but it doesn’t do these characters any favors. 

In fairness, there are two human characters who avoid this fate: Mensah and Gurathin. Mensah is Murderbot’s friend and advocate, while Gurathin is the jerk who doesn’t think Murderbot is trustworthy. That makes them memorable, because they can’t easily be replaced by one of the other humans, who are generally friendly toward Murderbot but not so much that they’d compete with Mensah. 

With that in mind, the solution is quite simple: cut the number of human characters down from eight to four. We still need Mensah and Gurathin, plus two more humans to be swayed for or against Murderbot. Four humans is still plenty for Murderbot to rescue or to get injured when the story calls for it.* It also allows us to retain a scene where Overse scolds Ratthi for caring more about getting ally cookies than how Murderbot feels. Whether we keep those two names or pick a couple of the others, the moment is important to keep. 

2. Nancy Drew 

Carson hugging Nancy with Ryan in the background.

Now in its third season, this show has a core cast of five characters centered around Nancy herself. The other four are Nancy’s friends, coworkers, romance interests, and partners in solving mysteries. Sometimes they fit into more than one category at a time. With such a tight group, it’s easy to assume these five are the show’s main cast, but that’s not technically true. 

For all three of its seasons, Nancy Drew has two additional characters appear under the “starring” section of its credits: Carson and Ryan.* This is easy to forget, since in the first two seasons, neither of them act like protagonists. Carson is Nancy’s adopted father, and he primarily features in storylines where Nancy investigates her family background. Meanwhile, Ryan begins as a minor villain, then slowly goes through a redemption arc to help Nancy take down his evil family, the Hudsons.* 

Season three changes the formula, as Nancy and the other main characters no longer have any plots that directly relate to Ryan or Carson. Nancy’s family history is entirely unraveled by then, and the Hudsons are soundly defeated. At this point, the writers start treating Carson and Ryan like more traditional main characters, giving them their own arcs and storylines. It doesn’t go well. 

The first problem is that neither Carson nor Ryan fit in with the other main characters. Both men are significantly older, and they have little reason to interact with the other characters now that their respective plots are finished. Instead of complementing the rest of the cast, these two go off on their own, sometimes separately and sometimes together but always in plots that barely relate to the main story. We get subplots about Carson going on a date* and even an entire episode about Carson and Ryan falling under a magic curse. 

At the best of times, this would be annoying, because it leeches time from the show’s actual main characters. Carson and Ryan are fine as side characters, but they’re not the ones we tune in for. It’s even worse in season three, where everything is rushed because it has five fewer episodes than previous seasons. Major character arcs abruptly end because there’s no time, and the finale reads like a summary of several different episodes because there was simply too much left to resolve. 

In that environment, the extra time lavished on two glorified characters goes from annoying to deeply frustrating. We could have used that time to finish investigating the evil witch rather than just having Nancy stumble on the answer in a box!* It’s also hard to miss how having two additional white guys doesn’t do great things to the show’s character diversity. Nancy Drew’s core cast of five is already three-fifths white; it doesn’t need to be any whiter! 

The obvious storytelling solution is to cut both Carson and Ryan from protagonist status. They could either make the occasional appearance as side characters or leave town entirely. I suspect that’s not an option for the show’s writers though, on account of those pesky contracts. We novelists can only be grateful that when we’re finished with a character, we don’t have to run it past the human resources department. 

3. The Legend of Vox Machina

The characters of Vox Machina, with one of them holding out a job ad.

At first glance, it doesn’t seem like Vox Machina’s cast of seven adventurers should be a problem, even for a half-hour cartoon. She-Ra easily has that many once you add the four princesses* to the main trio, and Amphibia has the four Plantars* plus innumerable side characters. Why would seven heroes be too many? 

Just like trying to calculate damage per round on your latest Hexblade multiclass, the devil is in the details. Specifically, the detail that, unlike other shows, Vox Machina has seven equally important main characters. In contrast, She-Ra has one main character and two really important secondary characters. Amphibia is similar, with one main character and three important secondary characters. Even Avatar: The Last Airbender, famous for being about Team Avatar, has a similar setup. Aang is the main character, initially supported by Katara and Sokka, with other characters like Toph and Zuko recruited later. 

Vox Machina takes a different approach because of its origins as a D&D campaign. Most RPG stories don’t have a single main character, as that would mean favoring one player over the others. Instead, a good GM works to make each PC equally important or as close to that as possible. That’s the right move when each character represents a real person who’s hoping for a fun evening of rolling dice and slaying monsters, but it doesn’t translate to a scripted format very well

The consequence is that Vox Machina never has enough time to split among its main characters. Unlike other shows, where secondary characters are only present when they have something important to do, all seven adventurers have to be in every episode. The only exception is when Pike nopes out of the quest to have an extremely weird crisis of faith, and even then, the story often cuts away to her. 

Normally, a story would spend a little time developing the major characters before diving into their individual backstory, but Vox Machina has no time. The first episode features some awkward expositions about the elf twins’ tragic history with dragons,* way before we know these characters well enough to care. 

Episode three is worse, as Percy’s tragic history with vampires* appears from nowhere and is suddenly the show’s main plot. Two episodes could have developed Percy enough to make that feel natural, but that doesn’t happen, because the screen time has to be split evenly between seven characters. Once Percy’s plot gets going, the story does actually focus on him a little more than the other characters, but it really needed to do that earlier. And in a cruel catch-22, the focus on Percy often leaves the other characters without enough to do

But easily the most visible result of having so many characters is that in fight scenes, half the characters stand around waiting as if it’s not their turn yet. Choreographing that many combatants is difficult enough in a novel, and visual stories have it even worse. If all the PCs attacked at once, it would be hard to show why the villains aren’t overwhelmed, so instead, everyone sits down for a breather between attacks. I’m guessing this is why the party’s bear all but disappears after the first episode, as it would essentially be adding an eighth character to every fight.   

4. Mass Effect 2

Mordin, Shepard, and Garrus from Mass Effect 2.

In the Mass Effect trilogy of games, the main characters are Shepard’s squadmates, the NPCs you can take with you. They include fan favorites like Garrus, Tali, Legion, Garrus, Wrex, and Garrus. Once you filter out the characters who can only join you for a single mission, the first Mass Effect game has six squadmates, while the third has seven if you include the DLC squadmate.* Mass Effect 2, in sharp contrast, has 10 squadmates by default and 12 if you include the DLC. 

That is, to put it mildly, too many squadmates. It’s so many that they start to get fuzzy around the edges, often stepping on each other’s dramatic toes. Jacob and Garrus are both your trustworthy soldier-buddy who has your back. Thane and Garrus are both broody assassins who monologue about their past. Jack and Miranda are both psychics who constantly yell at you, though admittedly for very different reasons.*

A bigger problem is our old friend: not enough time to develop all of them. Each character has one special mission that’s all about them, plus a handful of dialogue scenes on the Normandy, and that’s mostly it. Some of those scenes and missions are very good,* but they can only do so much when spread out over 50 hours of gameplay. 

Outside of those missions, there isn’t a whole lot of development for any of the characters except Shepard themself. I suspect the reason is that most missions allow you to take any two squadmates with you, so creating specific content for any potential combination was prohibitively time-consuming. The DLC characters are even worse for this, as they were clearly added after the fact and don’t have most of the custom banter that the other squadmates do. 

This effect is magnified if you’re one of those players who mostly just takes your same two favorites on every mission. You don’t want to miss any of your besties’ dialogue, so the other 8 to 10 characters get to stay on the ship until it’s time for their once-per-game field trip. Some characters even start arcs and never finish them. Grunt is introduced as a super-special Krogan, and the conclusion of his arc is becoming a normal Krogan. Jacob begins the story thinking his dad was a bad person, and then ends it thinking his dad was an even worse person. Granted, the writing in Jacob’s arc is terrible at any length, but the limited time certainly didn’t help. 

The lack of character development hurts Mass Effect 2 most in the story’s finale. Unlike other missions, this one involves all your squadmates, and you have to assign them different roles based on what you think they’re good at. Pick wrong, and a bunch of them will die! Not only is this mechanically difficult because you barely know half of them, but it also lacks the dramatic weight that a more developed cast would have granted. The mission is still great fun, but a lot of the squadmates feel less like your comrades in arms and more like coworkers you’ve only said hi to at the company Christmas party. 

5. Stranger Things 4

Characters from Stranger Things 4 walking on all four sides of the screen.

On paper, I’d have said Stranger Things had too many characters even back in its first season. I didn’t see how a single story could handle adult characters, teen characters, and child characters all at once, but I was happily proven wrong. The first season is a masterclass in balancing the story just right so everyone has something to do and always feels relevant. 

Unfortunately, the show picks up more characters each season despite the occasional death, and in season four, it’s a little ridiculous. By the fifth episode, our main characters have split into four distinct groups, as best I can count them:

  • Team Hawkins: Nancy, Steve, Max, Dustin, Lucas, and Robin 
  • Team Training: Eleven, Owens, and Brenner
  • Team Road Trip: Mike, Will, Jonathan, and Argyle
  • Team Russia: Hopper, Joyce, and Murray

These are by no means the only characters, just the most prominent protagonists. We also have at least three villains: Vecna, Sullivan, and Jason, plus a bevy of side characters. I’m not sure where to put Eddie. He’s a fan favorite, but for at least half the season, he doesn’t do very much. 

That’s obviously a lot of characters, but the real problem is how they’re all involved in different plots. Team Hawkins is actually investigating the latest Upside Down threat and moving the story forward. Team Training is getting Eleven ready to defeat her backstory – I mean the Upside Down’s threat. Team Road Trip is trying to find Eleven, at which point they will presumably become her hype squad. Team Russia is trying to get Hopper out of jail. 

Of those four teams, only one is actually part of the story. Another promises to be part of the story eventually, and a third is trying to meet up with the team that promises to be part of the story eventually. The fourth might as well be its own show, as there’s no significant link between freeing Hopper and stopping Vecna. Of course, the writers eventually contrive one, but it’s absent for most of the show. 

This is why every episode is an hour and 20 minutes or longer. Season four’s plot isn’t actually that complicated, and Team Hawkins figures it out pretty quickly, but we also need to check in on what every other character is doing. It’s exhausting, even if the individual scenes are still well crafted, which most of them are. 

Fixing this would be a real beast even without considering the contractual obligations that I’m sure the Stranger Things writers are working under. Each group of characters is tied to a separate plot, making it much more complicated to remove or consolidate them. If nothing else, we can cut the Hopper plot. Hopper should have just stayed dead at the end of season three, and there’s no reason we ever need to see Murray again. He’s less obnoxious now than he used to be, but he serves no real purpose other than filling out Joyce’s rescue mission. Joyce herself could either join one of the other teams or just retire. I think she’s earned a break. 

For the other characters, the big-picture solution is to either keep the story entirely in Hawkins or move it entirely out of Hawkins. This halfway situation is just making things awkward. The real story is in Hawkins, but we have to keep cutting away from it to check on the Stranger Things diaspora. Instead, we can either move the threat to California or stay with the town where they’ve already built all the sets. 

Most of the adult characters could be cut as well, since the former teen characters are now adults, and the child characters are now teens. Owens might make a decent ally who offers support once in a while, but there’s no reason for him to be a main character, and there’s certainly no reason to bring Brenner back. We can explore Eleven’s past without raising the dead. 

Some stories have too many characters total, while others have a reasonable number but then try to make too many of them into protagonists. Theoretically, a story could even do both! Stranger things have happened. Such stories either don’t have the time to develop everyone they need to, or they slow the plot to a crawl to introduce more heroes. You can avoid both problems by including the number of characters your story needs, rather than the number you might personally want. 

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

Jump to Comments