Everyone loves characters, so more characters is obviously better, right? What could go wrong with adding characters until you have a new one for every paragraph? Okay, most of us know it’s not as simple as throwing in any character you want, but this is a complicated subject. That’s why this week, we’re tackling the question of large casts. How many characters should there be? Are the Narnia kids too similar? Is Discworld really an exception, or is Oren just biased? All that, plus a reveal of which Star Wars movie is the best. (It’s Rogue One.)
Generously transcribed by Bunny and Svend. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[opening song]
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, and with me today is Wes and Chris. Now there are three of us, but I thought maybe that might not be enough so we could get maybe four, five or ten extra podcast hosts in here, maybe twenty, is there even a limit on how many hosts we can have? I mean like more hosts is probably good, right? Because it just means more ideas. And also each of us would have to say less to fill up a half hour episode. What could go wrong?
Chris: It would also make our podcast very epic.
Wes: The most.
Oren: That’s true. There’d be so many of us.
Wes: There might only be one goal of this podcast, but we have to scrutinize it from at least thirty different points of view to really know what’s going on.
Oren: Yeah, plus then there will be more of us to murder. Oh wait, excuse me. Hang on. I think I may have stretched the metaphor a little too far there.
Wes: I swear, if you kill any of the actual real hosts, I’m going to be mad.
Oren: Well, I mean, there’s two/thirds chance you might be mad. Uh, anyway. So today we’re talking about large casts, which is to say, stories with lots of characters. How many characters is a lot? I don’t know. Why would you ask me that? Probably more than three for a short story? I don’t know. Chris, do you know numbers? How many characters is a lot of numbers?
Chris: Okay. So we have to talk about what type of characters. So if we’re talking about primary protagonists–like maybe you don’t even have a single main character cause you’re writing in omniscient, you’re writing Narnia or something. Once you get above three, it starts to get tricky. It’s not that you can’t do more than three, but then it’s just harder to do more than three. And so I think that’s like the comfortable number of primary people that are all supposed to get the highest level of development. And then if you want to add more, you got to downgrade them to the B cast pretty quickly, or else you’re just going to run into trouble. Other than that, I would say for a novel, a reasonable number would be a main character, maybe three or sidekicks, maybe five minor characters and one or two villains. That would be a normal number that most novels could handle, but it depends on everything else going in the story too.
Oren: Furiously writing all of this down. It’s good; these are hard numbers.
Wes: I like that you said three and you said prime. And then I thought of colors because of the three prime colors and they’re distinct. And then when you add more, you start mixing colors and then you can’t pay attention to anything anymore. That’s my metaphor.
Chris: When we talk about complexity–cause really that’s what this is about, is how complex things are–I usually just start with, “Okay. I know this is a level that work can handle”, and then go from there. Because it’s just so hard to quantify complexity because there’s so many details. And when we’re talking about characters, it also matters what else you have in your story that’s complex. Is your plot really complex? Is your world really complex? All of that just adds to the total complexity of your story. So if you have a really simple plot and your setting is really simple and doesn’t take a lot of explaining, you can fit in more characters. You know, similarly, I imagine if you had less minor characters, maybe that makes it easier to squeeze in another major character. Not exactly because they have different roles in the plot, so they’re not necessarily interchangeable, but it’s possible you could make more room for that.
Oren: I mean, every single thing you put in your story is something that the reader has to remember. The more of those, the more there is to remember, and people have a finite capacity for that.
Wes: And some of us less so than others. I forgot what you just said.
Oren: That’s fair. And unfortunately, this is one of those instances where what medium you’re working in makes a big difference. It’s sad, but film and comics have a big advantage over prose authors here. It’s not to say that those mediums can’t have too many characters, but it’s just easier for people to remember characters who they can see–probably hear in the case of film or TV, possibly smell once we get really advanced. The more senses that are involved, the easier it is to remember who a character is, even if you don’t remember their names. Like, I can’t remember any of the characters from Rogue One (#beststarwarsmovie). I don’t remember their names, but I know who they all are. I can think of each of their mugs. That’s the leader lady. That’s the spy guy. That’s the stick dude. That’s the big gun dude. That’s the pilot dude. I know all of them, the droid guy, I know them all. I just can’t remember any of their names.
Chris: But that’s all we got when we’re writing for the most part. I mean, we can add other things, but most of the time, we have to use their names to refer to the character because it’s too slow otherwise in many circumstances. So if people don’t remember your character’s name, that’s a much bigger problem in a prose story.
Wes: And God forbid that you give your character multiple nicknames throughout the story.
Oren: Ugh, no, don’t do it. I already resent that most English speaking people have two names. That’s like an extra hundred percent of names and we use those names in different contexts.
Chris: So yeah, it’s weird if you use the first name or the last name when you’re not supposed to, but you can’t just give two names for every character and expect people to remember both the first name and the last name, like right away. You could maybe for your main character, but..whoof.
Wes: That’s too much.
Oren: Yeah, it’s tough. I just would like everyone in the world to switch to a single name system. That would just make things so much easier for novelists. Because it’s like, “Look guys, I spent a really long time getting you to remember that this character’s name is Robert,” but like now we’re in a board meeting and it doesn’t make sense for his boss who he barely knows to call him. Mr. Robert. So I guess now you have to remember that his last name is Smith. So hopefully you remember that because that’s a whole nother name you gotta remember.
Chris: My pet peeve is when somebody introduces a character by their full name and then just without warning starts calling them by a nickname that is based on their last name. So, so hard to make that leap. It was like, wait, who is this person? And you know, if you’re not listening to it by audio, you can at least go back up, you know, however much time, a couple paragraphs, and just be like, Okay, that’s probably who the writer is talking about? In audio it’s just whatever, I don’t know who this is, carry on.
Oren: That’s basically what was happening in The Tommyknockers, if I recall correctly. There’s like a character with like three different nicknames,
Chris: I think Stephen King was just spilling words onto the page and never went back and made them all the same and didn’t remember what he had decided.
Oren: That book didn’t have a huge cast or at least not in the parts that I read. Like a story that did have this problem was Gideon the Ninth, which has a huge cast of characters, and each of them has at least three names. And some of them have the same nicknames, because like, they have a first name and the last name–different characters call them by their first name or by their last name–and then they also have like a house nickname that they use. And that is like shared between multiple characters, cause like, there’s at least two characters that are from the sixth house. S when someone says “Sextus” that could be referring to either of them. And often the book’s not really clear who it is, so I would get so lost. And then some of them have nicknames on top of that. I was like, Oh my gosh, this was just a huge full-time job to try to remember which character was being referred to.
Chris: And there’s nine houses and two characters from each house in the story, so that’s eighteen people.
Oren: Plus a couple more. At least one of the houses has three. So there’s twenty. Then there’s like a weird monk guy who’s hanging out. Yeah, there’s a bunch. Oh gosh.
Chris: Again, you can get away with more if you let some characters fade to the background, and if you’re not planning on trying to develop them all. That’s the other thing, is that the more characters you have, you gotta think of your page space and the fact that they have to share it and they’re splitting it up. So the more characters you have, the less time you have devoted to each, which means less time to make them memorable and less time to just develop them as characters and have the reader understand them. And it does actually help if your story is long; you still have to be careful to introduce them. You can’t just, you know, dump thirty characters at once because you’re writing an epic that’s 300,000 words long. But with more time, if you’re careful in introducing them, readers can get to know them better. So if you have like a B cast of minor characters that you don’t expect readers to remember, but you use consistent names, you can slowly get readers to remember them and then develop them a little bit further as you go, if you have like a long series or something.
Wes: Yeah ,the question on that–if you two have any thoughts or advice–like, is there a good way for a writer to basically flag that, “Hey, don’t worry too much about this character”. You know what I mean? Like not being a point of view character is certainly one way. There are certainly like epic stories that feature relatively large casts. But in addition to like a large cast–you know, we can get into Tolkien and any of our like high fantasy blowouts, like those, that have lots of proper names all over the place. But the way they’re presented, it’s like you can just gloss over those names. You know, it’s just like, Okay, I don’t need to worry about this person who is a quarrier and might show up again.
Chris: There’s different ways of writing about the characters that will signal to the reader whether or not they’re supposed to remember that character. So the biggest giveaway that you’re telling readers to remember the character–which may not be a terrible thing, if it’s an important character, but if you do it for tons of characters, your work is going to start feeling like homework–is when you pause a narration, you give their name and then dump a bunch of information about them. And that could include description of what they look like, or just, This is their backstory, this is what species they are…when you stop and do that, it feels like the reader is supposed to memorize that information and recall it later. Now you can do that simpler, but it can still be a problem. So for instance, you have a room full of people and you’re like, Oh, a guy with a scar was sitting next to the woman with a hat and then you kind of described them, but the viewpoint character doesn’t know their name, and then you go later and you’re like, Hey. “And then the guy with a scar said”, now that’s a very simple description. So you might be able to get away with it, but you’re still at some level asking readers to remember the person because you’re giving a little bit more upfront and then referring back to the description you previously used. And if you have a scene of six people sitting at a table and you do that, the assumption is that they have to continually keep track of the guy with the scar and remember what he was doing and what he was saying. Whereas I think at the opposite end of that is, first of all, always mentioning who exactly this person is and what their relationship is. So you just said, Wes, a quarrier. For instance, if you say “My sister, Beth”, we know instantly what the relationship this person has to the main character or the narrator, regardless if we really remember her or remember her name. And then if she comes back a couple chapters later, “My sister Beth”, again. And if you don’t describe her, you know, or don’t describe her very much, there’s much less assumption that you’re going to have to remember her. So it’s a little tricky and there’s just definitely scenarios where, if people are listing off names and the people aren’t even present, there’s definitely an assumption that you don’t have to remember those characters.
Oren: And a lot of it comes down to, How much attention do you draw to the character? And the various things that Chris has been discussing are ways to do that. Also having the character do something–like the more the character does, the more readers will expect that they have to remember that character. It would be kind of weird if, in the early chapters there’s a dragon attack and there’s like, one of the castle guards does a really bad-ass backflip and snaps the dragon’s neck and saves the day, and then you just never mention that guard again. That would be really confusing. People will be like, wait, what about that guard? That guard seemed important.
Chris: I also think it matters whether they do something in a scene or in summary, because anything in a scene is just going to have a higher level of importance.
Wes: That’s a good one. I like the idea of them doing something too. Depending on how many lines of dialogue you give them, you’re going to have to pay out. The second they open their mouth, whoof, they are on payroll and you have to make sure you deliver.
Oren: You can often find yourself in situations where the characters are hanging out with a group of people who, realistically, they would know all those people’s names, but you don’t want to have to make your readers memorize all those names. And in that situation, you generally–just for the purposes of making the dialogue feel real, characters will probably call some of the other NPCs by their names like a few times. But if you’re not giving them a lot of description, most readers will understand that like, “Yeah, okay, I probably don’t have to remember the soldier, Bob, who the main character was like, “You can do this, Bob”, or you know, “How you doing, Bob”, or something like that–although not everyone. In my latest round of beta reading I have encountered a few people who were having trouble because I have a group of secondary characters who I was doing that with, and some of the readers thought they were supposed to remember them. And I was like, No, you don’t have to remember them, it’s fine. You can just put a little note in there, like a call-out from the author: “Don’t worry, you don’t have to remember these characters”.
Chris: Yeah, I would definitely say, if you can get away with not naming a character–because they’re not actually going to be important to the story or really come back very much–then it’s always better just to say the courier, my sister, or whoever, give them their role, because that makes it easy to understand what they’re doing there in the story without thinking that you have to remember them.
Oren: And that’s actually a good way to start to build a B cast over time. You have your group of soldiers or whatever. And over the course of a few chapters, maybe you give a couple of them names, but you don’t do a lot of description, but like that name is there. And so then you can come back to that and be like, “Oh, hey, is that the one who got a name?” Then, like a few chapters later, the one who got a name does a thing. And now we give them a little more as a treat and then over time, that’s how you build a cast of secondary characters without having to introduce them all at once.
Chris: Yeah. Although I would also argue that if their role or title is unique, you could also get away with waiting to name them.
Oren: That’s true.
Chris: But again, they have to have only one sister. You have to be clear. There’s only one sister.
Oren: So many sisters, so many.
Chris: I think it might be worth talking about, besides just readers losing track, what’s difficult about having lots of characters.
Oren: Well, do they all expect arcs? Because I don’t have time for that.
Wes: They all demand the backstory.
Chris: Also just their personalities, right? You want every character to be distinct from other characters, not just keeping track of their names: they should feel like different people. And this is the thing that is very noticeable if you read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and then read some of the later Narnia books, like The Silver Chair and Voyage of the Dawn Treader, because CS Lewis had a lot of trouble keeping all of the kids from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe distinct from each other. And it feels like, after a while, that’s why he decided to kind of get rid of Susan in kind of a misogynist way.
Oren: Poor Susan.
Chris: Because to him, she was just kind of a less righteous Lucy. Later, Edmund is just second Peter, but he has this redemption arc in book one. So that gives him something, but later they’re practically indistinguishable from each other.
Oren: Yeah. Edmund is an interesting case because in book one, he’s distinct because he’s evil and then he turns good. So he has that going. In book two, I could sometimes forget who Edmund or Peter were. They’re basically the same person. There’s like one scene where they’re distinct because they have to challenge a guy to a duel to prove who they are. And Edmund’s like, “You should have me do it, because you’re the high king, so he’ll expect you to be cool. And so it’ll mean more if I win and it’ll also mean less for us if I lose, in case we don’t have our Narnia powers back.” And that was the one time I was like, “Yeah. Okay. I remember Edmund did that.” Then in the rest of the book, it’s just, “A boy,” I guess. One of the boys. And then in Dawn Treader, he’s actually distinct again, because Peter’s not there anymore. And so in Dawn Treader, he is the more experienced boy. And he’s the one who knows stuff. And, you know, Lucy should too, but that’s not her role in the story.
Chris: So it’s not impossible to have six main characters and make them all distinct from each other. But obviously it’s a step to come up with distinct personalities, and you have less time to set them apart from each other as well. So you have to do it in a shorter space.
Oren: I do have some fun tips for that though. Okay. So, obviously you want their personalities to be distinct, but personalities are hard, and I don’t have time for them. And all of my characters have the same personality: Solemn and Serious. So if you’re like me and you lack any creative spark, you have to fall back on some other things that are a little more concrete. So you can do things like give them different jobs. And this can be a literal job or a figurative job, or even an archetype. If, in the story, you need different things to do whatever the plot is, you give your characters different assignments in that structure. It is easier to tell them apart.
In Star Trek, this is literally: science officer, captain, doctor, pilot security, officer. Those all do various, clearly delineated things. And it’s just easier to tell them apart because they have different jobs. And this, interestingly, is one of the reasons why the first officer characters often get so little development in Star Trek – in particular, Next Generation, and Voyager – because the first officer in that show is basically just the emergency backup captain. The first officer and the captain do the same job. The first officer just does it when the captain’s not around, because Star Trek had a really hard time showing the delegation of command responsibilities that you would get on a real naval ship. So instead it’s just like, “Oh, well, Picard is here, so he does the captain stuff. And I guess if Picard’s not around, Riker can do it.” And that’s why, in Star Trek shows, the first officer has another job. Sometimes it’s the science officer. In Deep Space Nine’s case, it was to be a Bajoran, because Kira had a bunch of Bajoran stuff going on. And in the more recent Star Trek shows, like in Discovery, Burnham is also the science officer when she’s first officer, and then Saru is, like, the professional bad advice giver when he’s the first officer, as far as I can tell.
Chris: No, don’t be mean to Saru!
Oren: I mean, I haven’t seen that far into season four yet. He just gives bad advice.
Chris: Yeah. That’s another thing is that characters, if they’re on Team Good – if they’re protagonists or sidekicks – they should contribute in some way. They should make a difference to the plot. They should help out. And, again, the more characters you have, the harder it is to be like, “Okay, so these characters need to solve this mystery.” Am I going to give each character a clue? So I have to think of the number of clues per character. And then am I going to have two characters get a clue together? But then they each need to bring something to the table that allows both of them to get the clue. This is why Teen Wolf keeps doing this thing, because Teen Wolf has too many characters.
Wes: They can’t resist.
Chris: And I love shows with B casts, but sometimes it just gets a little too much. Especially since Teen Wolf insists on keeping every single villain from the previous season around to return later. But they will do this thing where they’ll split the characters up and then two groups will each uncover the same clue at the same time. And it’s just very redundant and they’re clearly doing it because they need things for the characters to do. And, as Oren has pointed out, because they don’t have enough meat to their mystery.
Oren: Their mystery just isn’t sufficiently complicated enough for such a large cast to all be doing something. They’ve actually been doing a little better in the final season, partly because there are way fewer characters. Most of the actors are no longer around, I’m guessing, because they’ve never willingly given up a character before. So I’m guessing most of the actors just decided not to come back or were busy. The second half of season six, which is basically the final season, is down to sort of our four core characters who are Scott, Malia, Lydia, and then Chris Argent. Those are your four core characters. Liam is around technically.
Chris: Liam is supposed to be a core character. It’s just that nobody likes him.
Oren: Yeah. Liam’s bad. Liam’s only contribution is that he brings Mason into the story, but even Mason doesn’t have that much to do in season six. He’s mostly doing support roles, whereas in previous seasons you would have all those characters plus like a dozen more.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, she mentioned that, because Dylan O’Brien started filming movies, Styles is not really in the sixth season, either part one or part two. And so they could’ve upgraded Mason a little bit. Hey Mason, have you considered being friends with Scott instead of Liam?
Oren: Does anyone want to be friends with Liam? Harsh! And you can also get a similar thing to what I was talking about with jobs with unofficial roles. You don’t necessarily need to be in a military command structure to do this. You can have your sneaky character and your smart character and your punch character. If you’re going to have more than one person that does the same thing, you have to be prepared to have something else that sets them apart. Maybe you have two punch characters with a rivalry or something. Otherwise, they’re just going to compete with each other for screen time, and that’s not a great thing. That’s not going to work out for you.
Chris: But if they have a rivalry, they still have to be different, instead of just two identical people punching each other.
Wes: That seems like a main criteria for jobs and such, but I’m curious: how can you use the environment to help set the characters apart? For example, in The Guard series in Pratchett’s books, Discworld, there’s a lot of guards, particularly in The Fifth Elephant. They go to Uberwald, but several guards stayed back in Ankh-Morpork. And that location-based stuff helped me keep track of what was going on, because it was like a clear split from where one scene was like, “Okay, now I’m back in Ankh-Morpork.” And that helped keep me from getting confused, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily good advice.
Oren: I mean, it could certainly help if you can remember which group went where, although that kind of requires you to be splitting your characters up and sending them to different areas, which I generally don’t recommend. It’s not like you can’t do it, but that usually just ends up fracturing the story. I would say that with Pratchett, honestly, a lot of his guard characters do kind of blur together after a while. You’ve got your core characters of Vimes, Carrot, Littlebottom, Detritus, and Angua. And then you have Nobby and whatever Nobby’s foil is.
Oren: Yeah. Nobby and Colon kind of off on their own, doing a little comedy routine. And there are other guards and they get added in at various points. At one point a vampire joins, but they’re never as distinctive as the core ones. And honestly, I think Pratchett depends a lot on his wit and funny writing style and hopes you won’t notice.
Chris: I will say it is trickier when all of your characters are in a scene together, because there’s also only so many things that you can keep track of in one scene. And that’s the thing about travel stories. Oftentimes you have a core group of characters and they’re all there all the time. So you have to find reasons to split them off a little bit. And it’s like, “Okay, they stopped at one location, and then a couple characters went to the market together.” They don’t all need to go to the market at the same time. I do think that definitely, if you have a really large cast, alternating which characters are actually in the scene and carrying the story is a good practice, but I would just, again, watch out for fracturing the plot.
Oren: And another thing to point out about Discworld that I think gives it an advantage: just because it is third person omniscient, and because it is pretty heavy on the comedy, it does get a little easier to remember characters, partly just because Pratchett, when he introduces the character you haven’t seen for a while, can be like, “It’s this guy who you might remember because of this humorous story about his upbringing.” And it’s like, “Yeah. Okay. I mean, that’ll remind me who he is.” That would be pretty heavy-handed in most stories and that would pull me out of it. But it’s Discworld, so you can accept that. I just don’t know if that’s a strategy most authors can use.
Well, now that we’ve had Oren’s Discworld corner, we’re going to go ahead and call an end to the podcast without adding any more hosts, incidentally, because we had discipline. There are plenty of stories that can benefit from large casts, but make sure you need one before you start adding more characters. Because it’s really tempting. A lot of times, you think of a cool character and you put them in there and they don’t really have a role or a job and that’s not going to work out. So just keep that in mind when you’re crafting your stories.
For those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. But before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[closing song]
This has been the Mythcreant podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulter.
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