Too Many Main Characters?

I have a problem with the novel I’m writing, and I think David Farland put his finger on it in his blog post yesterday:

The important thing here is to keep a limit on the number of viewpoint characters. Two or three main characters is plenty for an average novel of 80,000 to 90,000 words. If you try to handle six or seven, you’ll find that your novel expands to a couple hundred thousand words very quickly.

So keep the number of viewpoint characters down to a manageable level.

My novel, in its present form, has seven main characters, plus one villain (so far.) Why so many, you may well ask? A couple of works inspired me to try this. My favorite Stephen King novel is The Stand, which has an immense cast of characters. Of course, he could pull that off because he’s, well, Stephen King. I’ve read that 800-page novel twice and likely will again. I keep urging my sons to read it, but they’re needlessly put off by its length. Anyway, I was very consciously trying to emulate that work.

Another work I really admire is J.C. Hutchins’ 7th Son trilogy. It remains one of the finest works of podcast fiction almost eight years after its conclusion. Hutch’s deft handling of a large group of protagonists was apparently much more difficult than it appeared to me as a listener, because I’m struggling with it where he succeeded.

Fact is, right now I don’t have good story lines for all of these characters. The story, which is about some of the few people in New York City who are immune to subliminal mind control messages transmitted by street musicians, has dramatic tension for some of the characters, but others are not affected so clearly. They know people who have fallen victim to the music, but they aren’t personally involved – none of their loved ones have lost their minds.

If David Farland’s advice is sound, then I need to demote some of these characters. Keep them in the story, but stop telling it from their viewpoints. That might well make my plotting easier, too. Trying to come up with a journey and resolution that will be both believable and satisfying and that involves all of them in some way has been, shall we say, frustrating. To be honest, that’s a major reason my progress has been so slow. I don’t look forward to working on it because I don’t know what to do.

I don’t ordinarily do rewrites before a novel is complete, but this may book may call for an exception. Something to think about next time I fire up Scrivener.


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