How Many Characters Do You Need?

August 30, 2009

Okay, I blew it.

And I’m here to fess up.

An old writing rule of mine went, “Thou shalt not multiply characters beyond necessity.” Sort of a spin on Occam’s Razor, that kept me from packing my fiction with every character that popped into my head at the time.

Why have five characters if you can tell the story with four? And why have four characters if you can merge a couple of them and tell the story with three?

Fewer characters means a tighter story, fewer distractions, a faster plot… and a lower word count. You can make that 8,000-word unpublishable beast into a lean 3,000-word speed demon that’s easier to sell.

Everything Bad is Good for You, Steven Johnson

Notice we’re talking about short stories here. In short stories, limiting the number of characters to the minimum that you dramatically require is a good rule.

So last month I’m reading the latest Steven Johnson, a random library pick called Everything Bad is Good for You, and he’s talking about how drama (television, in this case) has grown in complexity over the past few decades. Modern TV drama, he argues, requires greater viewer memory and foreknowledge, has more parallel plotlines, more esoteric dialogue… and a lot more characters.

To help prove his point, he presents a “social network” of an episode of Dallas (1978-1991), a character map of everyone in the episode.

Dallas Social Network

Then he presents the character map of an episode from the first season of 24 (2001). It’s quite a bit more complex, with more characters and more relationships.

24 Social Network

Johnson’s argument that TV viewers have gotten used to, and enjoy, complicated dramas with a mess of characters, is only peripherally interesting to me as a novelist. Unless…

How have novels changed over time?

I was just wondering about that when I picked up a copy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

(Austen was a source of inspiration for Stephenie “Twilight” Meyer. Plus, Pride and Prejudice is wicked old, published in 1813, five years before Frankenstein. Generally I dig old fiction.)

I didn’t get very far in Pride and Prejudice. Sorry, fans. Austen broke a lot of rules of modern fiction. Good rules. Like, use speaker attributions in dialogue, so readers know who is speaking. And, don’t give characters similar-sounding names — Austen blesses us with five, that’s five sisters, all called “Miss Bennett” by other characters.

So rather than reading it, I started reading about it… and came across a character map (Johnson might say a “social network”) of it.

Pride and Prejudice Social Network

Holy crap, it’s a mess. No wonder I was confused.

It reminded me of Johnson’s map of the 24 episode.



Whatever the date, it’s clear that my old rule, “Thou shalt not multiply characters beyond necessity,” er, um… needs revision.

Still dandy for short stories. Not so useful for novels.

What, then? Pack your novels with characters?

I’m going to turn, again, to Robert McKee’s Story, because I think he really nails this. He says that a writer can use other characters as a lens through which we see the main character. More characters in your story may, if done well, better illustrate a complex central character.

In essence, the protagonist creates the rest of the cast. All other characters are in a story first and foremost because of the relationship they strike to the protagonist and the way each helps to delineate the dimensions of the protagonist’s complex nature.

When McKee says complex, he’s talking about the Yin-Yang complexity of characters, the dual presence of opposite traits, that I’ve talked about in an earlier post.

Consider this hypothetical protagonist: He’s amusing and optimistic, then morose and cynical; he’s compassionate, then cruel; fearless, then fearful. This four-dimensional role needs a cast around him to delineate his contradictions, characters toward whom he can act and react in different ways at different times and places. These supporting characters must round him out so that his complexity is both consistent and credible.

Then McKee lets loose with a character map of his own.

STORY page 380

Character A, for example, provokes the protagonist’s sadness and cynicism, while Character B brings out his witty, hopeful side. Character C inspires his loving and courageous emotions, while Character D forces him to first cower in fear, then to strike out in fury. The creation and design of characters A, B, C, and D is dictated by the needs of the protagonist.

Wow. I’m not saying that Jane Austen and Joel Surnow included big casts of supporting characters in order to reveal the complexity of their main characters.

But forget them — I’m talking about me here. And you. No one is stopping us from doing it. Lesson learned.

Character Complexity (and Slaying Vampires)

July 28, 2009

We all agree that complex characters are good. Where we writers screw up is the damn challenge of creating them.

Say you’re beginning to think about a character. How do you add complexity? Or have you botched it already? Is complexity at a character’s core, where the creative process of the writer begins?

Here’s what complexity isn’t.

It’s not a list of traits. “Here’s my character = job + hobbies + height/weight/eyes/hair + family + place of birth + romantic relationships + …”

Details don’t make a character complex. Neither does the presence of a single all-powerful motive or all-consuming characteristic. “Ruthlessness” maybe, or “lust for power.”

No – that character would be 100% predictable and 100% dull.

Here’s a picture of character complexity for you:

Yin Yang symbol

That’s the yin-yang symbol. Yin and yang are opposite forces, like light and shade, or male and female, coming together. I’m not going to get more into the religious meaning than that – but I am going to borrow this thing to remind me about character.

A complex character is a balance of opposite characteristics or identities. My all-time favorite example is (don’t laugh)… Buffy Summers, the Vampire Slayer.

Joss Whedon
Joss Whedon dreamed up the character – a school girl (that’s one characteristic) who slays vampires (that’s the other). Now stop and think about it.

That’s the character. Nothing else. But that idea drove a movie, then seven seasons of a television show, followed by an eighth “season” in comic book form… and writers aren’t finished with her yet.

Buffy will sweat over her history homework… then drop her pencil and battle a nest of vampires. She’ll save the world from a soul-eating demon, then she’ll worry about senior prom. These reversals always come as a surprise – the audience never gets used to them.

It sounds ridiculous… and it is. Buffy’s yin-yang drives, essentially, all the humor of the TV show (and if you haven’t seen it… it’s funny).

Buffy, The Long Way Home

But a character’s yin-yang complexity isn’t just for laughs and witty reversals. Fans of Buffy know how tortured she is – you see, she wants to be a school girl, she yearns for a normal life, she hates the crypts and the undead gore… but she also knows she’s chosen to be an epic warrior, blessed with strength and speed and the power to save people’s lives.

Spider-Man 2
It’s the same inner conflict Peter Parker struggles with in Spider-Man 2 – hero vs. normal guy.

After humor and surprising reversals, this intense agony of inner conflict is the other gift of a yin-yang nature.

These sorts of characters are fascinating to us.

Darth Vader is a black-suited, faceless villain (worth hating, but not thinking about) until he reveals that he’s Luke’s father… and gains complexity (heartless villain vs. compassionate father). And that inner conflict needs a whole third movie (Return of the Jedi) to play itself out.

And Luke (farm boy vs. Jedi)? And Harry Potter (orphan vs. wizard)?

Shakespeare, Chicago
Let’s stop screwing around: Shakespeare’s character MacBeth’s yin-yang is pure ambition vs. guilt – that drives the whole Scottish play.

This last example comes from Robert McKee in Story. “MacBeth is a brilliantly realized character,” McKee says, “because of the contradiction between his ambition on one hand and his guilt on the other. From this profound inner contradiction springs his passion, his complexity, his poetry.”

McKee’s word for the complexity of a character is “dimension,” as in “three-dimensional character.” He says it right out: “Dimension means contradiction.”

I’m going to cite one more example from McKee to wrap up this post.


“Consider Hamlet, the most complex character ever written… He seems spiritual until he’s blasphemous. To Ophelia he’s first loving and tender, then callous, even sadistic. He’s courageous, then cowardly. At times he’s cool and cautious, then impulsive and rash, as he stabs someone behind a curtain without knowing who’s there. Hamlet is ruthless and compassionate, proud and self-pitying, witty and sad, weary and dynamic, lucid and confused, sane and mad. His is an innocent worldliness, a worldly innocence, a living contradiction of almost any human qualities we could imagine.”

(Does this remind anyone of Holden Caulfield?)

Using the Green-Eyed Monster

July 2, 2009

“Make sure your reader can identify with your main character.”

Gee, thanks.

I’ll file that lovely bit of advice next to “Only buy stocks that go up.”

If I freaking knew how to make my freaking reader identify with my freaking main character, don’t you think I would!?!

Techniques of the Selling Writer

Well, now you can, because here’s a trick that helps. I learned it from Dwight Swain, and like certain bits of writing advice, once I read it, it struck me like a diamond bullet in the forehead and I knew it was true.

Stop and think of your favorite characters from novels you’ve read. (Movies are okay, too.) Got it?

They all have something in common, and that’s the specific emotion they invoke in you. Time for some honesty here. Ready? Swain says:

How do you persuade your reader to identify?

You shackle him to the character with chains of envy.

That is, you make the character someone who does what your reader would like to do, yet can’t. You establish him as the kind of person Reader would like to be like… a figure to envy.

Envy? Envy! The word rolls around in my head every time I make a new character.

Sherlock Holmes: we envy his deductive skills.
Harry Potter: don’t you wish that you could be a wizard? That your school could be like Hogwarts?
James Bond: where to begin? Gadgets, girls, guns… and fast cars.
Batman: Envy is emotion, not logic. Logically, we’d rather not be a traumatized neurotic who dresses up in a bat costume. But our gut tells us we’d love to strike terror in the hearts of bad guys, come and go like a shadow, and drive… again, a super cool car.
Bella Swan: Please. Is there a 13-year-old girl on the planet who doesn’t want to date Edward Cullen?

(Note that boys want to be Batman, and girls want to be Bella Swan. Think about your audience.)

Swain generalizes, proposing a universal enviable characteristic present in every well-loved main character:

Courage to do what?
Courage to attempt to control reality….
The exciting character is the one who challenges fate and attempts to dominate reality, despite all common sense and logic.


Robert McKee, in his libromagus Story, proposes that every story has a “Center of Good” that the reader (or viewer) seeks out and latches on to. I think this is envy again, expressed in a different way. McKee says that envy is relative, and if a character merely outshines secondary characters, we may be drawn to him. In the novel and movie Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter is a villain… sort of.

The writers place Clarice at the positive focal point, but also draw a second Center of Good around Hannibal Lecter and draw empathy to both. First, they assign Dr. Lecter admirable and desirable qualities: massive intelligence, a sharp wit and sense of irony, gentlemanly charm, and most importantly, calmness….

Next, to counterpoint these qualities the writers surround Lecter with a brutish, cynical society. His prison psychiatrist is a sadist and publicity hound. His guards are dimwits…. We fall into empathy, musing, “If I were a cannibalistic psychopath, I’d want to be just like Lecter.”


So when your main character makes your critique group snooze, think about that single powerful word, envy. It explains Han Solo… and Darth Vader. And along with an early “save the cat” scene, it can hook and hold your readers.