Too Many Characters

Too Many Characters

You sometimes find yourself writing a story with a lot of characters. A jury trial, for example, or a large family, or a gang. At times, it is unavoidable; you don’t usually call two nasty people a gang and you can’t pretend in your memoir that you don’t have six siblings.

But the writing problem created by this can be indistinguishable characters. The reader can’t keep the different people straight. Is Mary the crazy cousin or the successful lawyer? Didn’t Alfred die a couple of chapters ago? This makes for at least confusing and often annoying reading.

Dealing with many characters

Dickens dealt with this question by giving his players memorable names. Mr. Pumblechook and Uriah Heep from Great Expectations, Peggotty from David Copperfield, etc.  This is not usually a device open to the modern writer unless there is comic intent. But you can tackle this issue in other ways.

Don’t use similar names. In particular, don’t start major figures’ names, or minor ones who interact with the major ones, with the same letter. Mary talking to Marg about Melanie. I understand that there might be some reluctance to rename relatives in your memoir, so if ‘John’ is a tradition in your family, you will have to work really hard to ensure that the reader has a distinctive picture of each ‘John.’  This may not suit the story to elaborate on every ‘John’ kicking around, so you may need to consistently use another identifier. ‘Cambridge John’ or ‘Toronto John’ could help.

  If you can, also steer clear of similar sounding names—Hamish and Amish, Bonnie and Ronnie.

Focus on a few.  In the classic jury trial, 12 Angry Men, we don’t get to know all twelve jurors equally well. The screen writer focused on a few to interact with Henry Fonda, the hero of the piece. The other jurors might throw in the occasional independent comment or contribute to the general disagreement with Henry Fonda’s character, but they don’t get highlighted.

  This is probably true for your narrative. Even with a cast of hundreds, you still need to concentrate on telling the story of relatively few.

Introduce them one at a time. Although you won’t want to spend as much time as you would with a primary figure, introduce each of the minor figures you want to include one at a time. Doesn’t have to be a long scene but pairing the new character with an already established one will help fix the new player in the reader’s mind.

Include a cast of characters. If all else fails, you can include a cast of characters at the beginning of the novel. And believe me, I was very grateful for the list when reading many Russian novels.

Doesn’t this take focus away from the main protagonist?

You may be concerned that spending time introducing the minor characters will take the focus away from the central character. First of all, remember that you only need to do this with the relatively few of the cast who will interact with the hero of the novel. Secondly, pairing the protagonist with the minor character being introduced can also be used to learn something more about the main figure by how he deals with the minor ones.


Typically, exploring the interactions among a few characters in a novel is both easier to write (I’m not saying ‘easy’) but also clearer for the reader. But if your heart is set on a trilogy of sweeping historical novels, you can use these techniques to avoid making the reader work harder than he has to and risking breaking the continuous dream.


Conversation versus Fictional Dialog


Conversation versus Fictional Dialog

Here’s how a real conversation goes:

“Hi, Jen,” I said.

“Hi, Frances,” she replied. “Can you believe the weather?”

“Unbelievable. They’re predicting more snow tomorrow.”

“And then the temperature is going up so there might be freezing rain.”

I shook her head. “I can’t wait for spring.”

“Me, too. Hey, did you see the news last night?”

“I know, would you believe the gall of the guy?”


Okay, I’ll stop it there. We’ve all had these conversations and there is nothing wrong with them as lubricant to social interaction. But as dialog, they are deadly and break the unwritten laws of fiction of which your reader is unaware but you ignore at your peril.

The problem with real life

Let’s assume the conversation above is intended as fictional dialog. What’s wrong with it?

  • First, it is just noise unless your story is about an impending tornado or the comeuppance of the guy with the gall (but if it is one or the other, one part of the conversation is unneeded). Readers get bored with extraneous stuff and quit reading.
  • Second, the dialog doesn’t have a purpose. By that I mean, it doesn’t move the story forward, either by showing something about the characters we need to know or by disclosing part of the plot.

How to make your dialog read like conversation

The answer is not to vow, “Right, I’m going to decide the purpose of this dialog before I start writing.” If you do, you’ll probably end up with quite a stilted scene. Let the dialog flow as it might in conversation (minus the extraneous bits), but get to the point quickly.

Another equally effective way is to write the initial draft of the dialog as feels right. When you have finished the story and are in edit mode, consider each piece of dialog to see whether it contributes to the story or character development. If it does, great. Doubt? Try to identify how it helps the story. If you can’t, this might be a candidate for the chopping block. 

Conversation revisited

Let’s redo the conversation above to make it useful dialog in a story. The first redo is if the story is about an impending tornado and the second about the galling guy.

Impending tornado

“My god, did you see the weather forecast?” Jen asked.

“I know, tornadoes! That’s crazy this far north,” I said. “And on top of all the snow and freezing temperatures.”

“This has got to be climate change,” she said.

Story might end up being about climate change; might not. But this version immediately introduces the main topic. No greetings, no small talk.

Galling guy

Jen tossed her bag on her desk. “Did you see McFarlane on the news last night?”

“Unbelievable,” I said. “The gall of the guy.”

“He’ll stoop to anything.”

“Of course, will anybody be able to prove that he’s lied?”

Same thing—use the dialog to move the story forward even if it is simply setting the scene for more complicated events later.


Conversation is actually quite different from dialog in that it doesn’t need to go somewhere whereas dialog does. Another example of where saying “But that’s how it really happened,” gets the response, “And what’s your point?”