This is something of a problem that cropped up while working on my latest book. The book, entitled “The Children of Lubrochius,” is the first book in my series, “From the Ashes of Ruin.” If you’ve read “Drasmyr,” “Drasmyr” is essentially the prequel to the series (Yes, I wrote the prequel first.) Anyway, the problem is, or was, that I kept running into problems because I had too many characters. I had most of the characters from the first book, and several new ones. Obviously, I had to make some decisions. I had to separate the major characters from the minor characters and determine who would be shadowed in each section of each chapter. (By “shadowed,” I mean, which character’s point of view I tell that section by).
It has been called a weakness of my first book that I jumped around too much. I had sections where I shadowed Lucian, others where I shadowed Coragan, others Galladrin, Korina, Regecon, Clarissa, and still more. Although, many of those were just one or two scenes. The major characters were, of course, Coragan, Galladrin, and Regecon. The main antagonists were Lucian and Korina. It all made perfect sense to me while writing, but I can see how someone could be confused, at least, at first. Eventually, though, it all clicks into place and creates a remarkable story. And, I think, if I were to write it again, I would change very little. However, going forward, as I said, the next book adds a few more characters; so many, that if I were to continue in the same pattern, I’m sure I would lose many readers.
So, what did I do? I got out my writer’s chainsaw and did some hacking. J From the four major characters I added, I permitted only one to… uh… not sure how to say it: of the four, one is a major major character, and the other three are too important to be minor characters, but not important enough to get very many chapters told from their point of view. I dethroned two of my previous major major characters, putting them in roughly the same position as those previous three… this is getting confusing. Let’s just say, I juggled the characters around a bit so that I was more focused on which character would be shadowed the most, and which would not. As it stands now, I have again, three main protagonists (Coragan, Ambrisia, and Gaelan (he’s a new guy)) and the same two antagonists (Lucian and Korina). And again, there are a number of minor characters of varying level of importance.
What is the point of all this? Limit the number of your characters. Quite simple, really. But not. I have so much to say, and one character is insufficient. Plus, I like weaving multiple viewpoints together. It’s fun. But there is a limit as to how many you can effectively do that with. Again, this is another lesson learned the hard way: plan it out beforehand, you’ll be happier for it. Otherwise, you’ll have to rewrite scenes from one character’s point of view to another. And that is a royal pain.
Anyway, I think the traditional novel has but one main character. Many modern series’ though (Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” comes to mind) have many more… although perhaps in the case of WoT, Rand is the main character, but I digress. When you have multiple books through which to develop your characters, you can afford to have more than one major character. But again, keep in mind, that what is clear to you the writer, might not be so clear to the reader. Fifty main characters is definitely out of the question. Seven or so, like in WoT… it can be done, but there is a cost. There’s a reason that series is fourteen books long. And though I loved the series, I will probably never reread it.
I’ve read a lot of fantasy in my life. Nowadays, I’ve started making a focused effort to write and publish my own work. One issue that seems to pop up and bear investigation and discussion is the number of major characters in a piece of literature. Many modern fantasy stories have a sizable number of such major characters, so much so, that it is difficult to categorize any single one as the “main character;” in fact, I would argue that in many cases, the notion of a main character is subsiding and being replaced by the notion of several major characters. Each character provides his or her own point of view and plotline. The author then weaves these all together to form a complete story, switching from one character and one point of view to another, and back and forth throughout, so that the whole resembles a kind of tapestry woven from the various plot threads. If done poorly, this can lead to confusion, or, if there are too many plot threads, this can lead to boredom as the reader fails to become invested in any of the characters. Masters of the craft, though, seem to have a knack for building up tension in each character’s plot thread, and switching point of view in such a way that the reader must continue reading, not only to find out what happens with the one character, but also with the next. Sometimes the plotlines blend for a time, as two or three major characters travel together or what-have-you, then separate. But my question is: is there a maximum number of characters that one can effectively have in a series?
I don’t want to give a specific number but I believe there is. The more major characters you add to a story, the more diluted the central plotline becomes. Often when I have read lengthy novels or trilogies, or what-have-you, and get to the end, I look back and am fascinated with how little each character actually accomplished over sometimes thousands of pages. They were driven from their castle, puttered around in a foreign city, then returned home with an army to retake the castle. And that’s all. The reason this happens is because of the number of major characters. Few novels these days tell a single story; instead, there are multiple sub-stories woven together. Obviously, if there are four sub-stories in an 800 page book, then each sub-story usually only gets about 200 pages or so. Clearly, the writer cannot accomplish as much in that shorter length. Hence, as I noted above, the characters are limited in what they can do, too.
One of my favorite series is the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (now being completed by Brandon Sanderson after Robert Jordan’s death). It is, however, a testament to the problem of having too many major characters. I suppose, theoretically, Rand Al’Thor as the Dragon Reborn is the main character, but that is only a technicality. All the major characters have consumed a comparable number of pages. And the result is a very LONG series. I think they’re at book fourteen, now. Hopefully, Brandon Sanderson will be able to finish it. But let’s just go through a list of the major characters (and this is just off the top of my head): Rand, Mat, Perrin, Egwene, Nynaeve, Elayne, Min, Aviendha… all right, that’s eight; I was expecting more, so maybe it’s not too bad. Except most of those demand equal or near equal time in the books. Is there any wonder why the series is so long? I enjoy the series. I really do. But because of the number of plotlines and major characters the series is so long that I’ll never sit down and read the entire bloody thing again. Which is a shame, because parts of it were really good. Well, the whole series was good. It’s just too much of a colossus to embark on again.
And that, I think, is a danger one risks when one writes. Characters have a tendency to multiply as you go along. The disciplined writer must learn to rein in his tendency to keep adding character upon character, and plotline upon plotline, or the end result might just be a literary mess.