11. How many characters should a great story have?
As the saying goes, ‘Two’s company, three’s a crowd,’ and although this isn’t exactly true when it comes to your story, there’s a seed of wisdom here that leads me to try to address a question I get asked… a lot! And that’s, ‘How many characters should a great story have?’ Now although there isn’t any definitive answer to this question, here are a few tips that I hope will prove helpful in developing the characters for your story:
Tip 1: Each character must have a unique purpose and reason for being in your story, and as a writer, you must know exactly what that is. From your all-important hero down to the smallest secondary character, you as a writer have the ability to make each character really count. Take the time to get to know your characters. Ask yourself about what they bring to the story and what their relationship brings out in your hero. Are they a love interest? Do they become a source of conflict? Do they challenge? Annoy? Teach? Help your hero face up to a certain truth?
Tip 2: On a practical level, we as an audience will only love your story if we love your characters. In order to connect with them, we need to get to know them. And in order to get to know them, we need to spend time with them. Think of a scene in your screenplay or a chapter in your book and ask yourself, ‘How many characters do we really have time to get to know?’. Too many characters cause your story to feel crowded and busy. Even an epic drama with hundreds of background characters will usually cut to a close-up shot when the lead characters begin to talk.
Tip 3: But here’s another thing to keep in mind, since it’s all about balance. If there aren’t enough characters, your story feels too ‘thin’, and there isn’t enough drama or stuff happening that we can sink our teeth into. Your hero needs others to go on the journey with, to relate to, and to help provide the roller-coaster ride of your story.
So in answer to the question, ‘How many characters should I have?’, my suggestion is let your story speak to you and tell you which ones are needed. Consider the above tips and take the time to get to know your characters. It will prove to be the most important time you’ve spent.
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