December 29, 2010

Managing the character count in epic fantasy and science fiction

The Author-Editor Clinic crew includes several editors who love speculative fiction. Freelance editor Marta Tanrikulu contributes this post on an issue that comes up often in editing SF.  Kyra

Many writers of science fiction and fantasy envision grand worlds and memorable characters swept up in epic events—and populate these story worlds with a rich breadth of characters to fill their vastness.

Epics in which huge casts of characters play roles in the story continue to inspire writers decades after they were written. Just a few examples include JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, CS Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Frank Herbert’s Dune series, and more recently, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. With the memorable fictional worlds introduced by these role models, it’s no wonder other authors strive to emulate them.

Stories of this scope have to be incredibly engaging for the reader to invest in reading hundreds, even thousands of pages. The plot, the characters, the setting, or the writing itself must be sensational. It requires great skill to pull off a story with multiple characters who each serve a critical plot role and capture the reader’s imagination and interest.

Many less-experienced writers are better off tackling less at first. If the writer lacks the requisite skill to handle the cast of characters, readers may not identify with the characters, may become confused, or may stop reading. Some authors come to an editor for advice on improving an epic work, and when these symptoms are apparent, having too many characters is one likely cause.

While it seems intuitive that more characters equates to more complexity and thus a more well-rounded story world, the opposite usually occurs. Although introducing more characters leads to the opportunity for more complex character interactions and subplots, additional characters tend to dilute the focus on the most important characters. In turn, this detracts from readers identifying with the central characters. The more characters there are, the less the page space allocated to each, and the greater the challenge to develop any of them well.

Sometimes, the number of characters is not an issue so much as keeping them straight. One way to advise authors with this issue is to emphasize the importance of firmly establishing each new character in the reader’s mind; the more characters, the better this task must be performed. For other authors, the solution may be to inject more personality or other interesting traits so characters are more readily identifiable. I've advised authors to name characters as distinctively as possible and to limit the number of different names used for each character (for example, it can be confusing to call the same character Dr. Smith, John, John Smith, Jonny, and Doc).

Regardless, a novel with large numbers of characters must either be written very well to draw the reader in, despite the likely weak characterization of at least some of the characters, or it must be epic in length yet compelling enough to keep readers from abandoning it.

Several fixes allow a story to retain the flavor of a densely populated world while engaging more reader empathy for the primary characters. Counterintuitively, most of these fixes are variants on the same solution: present fewer characters.

Streamlining the cast automatically focuses more attention on the characters that remain and allows the author to deepen the interactions, interconnections, and conflicts among them.

However, it can be challenging to identify which characters to cut. Readers typically expect that characters introduced by name will have enough characterization to be memorable, will appear again in the story, and will play some key role in advancing the story. These expectations are the basis of three approaches to streamlining that often work:

  1. Avoid naming characters who appear once or twice, particularly if their role in the story is peripheral. For example, a brother, nurse, or soldier can be called such rather than named Harry, Anne, or Corporal Williams.

  1. Omit characters with only a minor role in moving the main plot forward. Authors may be able to omit these characters entirely, omit scenes with these characters, or rewrite scenes, if essential to the plot, to assign the minor character’s role to another character.

  1. Combine characters that have the same or similar functions in the plot. Examples might be several siblings or friends, or several minor villains. Combining characters with similar functions into a single role gives the reenvisioned character more scene time and thus presents a better opportunity to build motivation, more complex interactions, and richer characterization—typically strengthening the story.

Another approach can be considered in cases where a story also has a confusing or very complex storyline. When multiple plotlines tend to obscure which plot is the main one, subplots that are less central, along with the characters that support them, can be weeded out of the story. This strategy will require significant restructuring. (However, characters that authors remain attached to have been known to inspire their own stand-alone stories.)

It’s worthwhile to encourage the effort of considering new possibilities. Often, it helps simply to change a few details about the characters, such as their age or relationship to other characters, or to introduce them in a different order. Other times, managing an epic cast may require substantially more creativity.

In my experience, authors who are open to suggestions like these have gone on to create more manageable stories for both themselves and their readers. It can be liberating to realize that imitating famed authors is often counterproductive, and that orchestrating a huge cast is rarely essential to creating a complex, believable, and entertaining story world.



  1. It's been interesting to me to think about this. It's obvious that many SF readers are willing to read many books in series by their favorite authors -- and one way to write a series is to have many characters and plotlines. But in fact I have given up on at least one series (by a highly regarded and bestselling author) because there were so many POV characters that I lost interest in the throughline. Each character was fully developed, so maybe this was just an issue of personal taste, but I think Marta is right about the challenges.

    I've been trying to think of epics that handle characters well. I think that smaller numbers of POV characters, and full investment in the protagonist, has been most satisfying for me.

    Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan saga, for example. I'd describe it as a comic space opera with depth (and multiple Hugo and Nebula awards). The protagonist stands head and shoulders above the rest--those who've read it will probably laugh at that image--yet the minor characters are far from walk-ons. They're treated seriously enough that they develop (as minor characters) throughout the series, and when they start taking up more page space in the later books, it's a plus rather than a minus.

    Now I'll have to go back and look at how Bujold does that. (She also has a fantasy series, the Chalion books, in which a very minor character in the first book is the protagonist of the second book and so on. Sort of like Marta said about minor characters later having stand-alone stories.)

    Any more examples of SF epics -- or mysteries and mystery series, for that matter -- that handle multiple characters really well? Or examples of epic-style stories that work well with small casts of characters?

  2. Your work is very good and I appreciate you and hopping for some more informative posts. Thank you for sharing great information to us.