The Perfect Number Of Characters

Published on 4 January 2022 at 19:00

The perfect number of characters for your story... does it exist? Your characters are the ones who make or break your story. I've said it before and I'll say it again: it doesn't matter how amazingly intricate your plot is, it's the characters (and the way they develop throughout your story) that will make your readers care. That's why your attention needs to be undivided when it comes to writing characters. And I'll be honest with you, it does take quite some time to create the perfect imaginary people. Therefore, it's good to know how many characters we need for our story. Short answer: not too many, not too few. There is no definitive number that you can stick to. However, there are some things that you need to consider when writing characters for your story. That's what I'm going to talk about today.

First, second, third...

First of all, it's important to know what kind of characters you need in your story:

  • Main character(s)

Main characters are who the story is about. What they do, think, feel and want is essential for how the story goes. Without them, there is no story. Your main character(s) are the most important characters of your story and you should take your time creating them. You don't always need multiple main characters for your story, but you need at least one.

  • Secondary characters

Secondary characters support the main character(s). It's the influence that they have on the main character(s) that is essential to the story. Without them, the story would still exist but it would play out entirely different. You should exactly know who your secondary characters are, because the way they influence your main character(s) is vital to the story.

  • Tertiary characters

Tertiary characters bring dimension to your story. They exist in your story's world and they play a minor role in the story. Without them, the story would be slightly different or not different at all. However, tertiary characters provide the depth that will help your readers become emotionally invested.

Ask yourself all the questions

To determine how many characters you actually need, you need to know what you're writing. A general rule is that your story needs as few characters as necessary to tell the story. How many is necessary depends on your story structure. A short story doesn't need as many characters as a novel. For the sake of this blog post, let's say we're writing a novel (because I am, and this character journey is a wild ride, people!), okay? 

In order to determine how many main characters your story needs, ask yourself whose story you're writing. Most likely one person pops in your mind. That's your main character!

Now ask yourself who supports your main character. Do they have a love interest (or more than one)? Do they have a best friend? Do they have a mentor? Do they have a sidekick? The antagonist, who (eventually, probably) helps your main character grow and overcome a huge obstacle, is also a secondary character! 

Last, if you're writing a novel, you can think about which characters you need to bring dimension to your story. Think about your own life: tertiary characters are everywhere. A neighbor down the street, the mail person, a teacher you had two decades ago... the list goes on. The same goes for your main character(s). A good tertiary character leaves you with questions. Not about the purpose in your story, but about their own story!

So... how many?

It might be the case that you've come up with 20 or 30 characters after finishing these questions. Or maybe you stopped coming up with imaginary people at 5 or 6. Both are totally fine, there's no golden rule that tells you how many characters you need. What you should keep in mind is that every character needs a purpose and that you should not invent more or less characters than are needed to tell your story. Every character, whether it's your main or a tertiary, deserves equal love and attention - both in your imagination as on paper. If you slack or overdo there, your story will suffer.

Now that you've read this blog post, you know that the perfect number of characters exists - and that that number is different for every story. And know that you're going to write the exact right amount of characters for your story. I'm rooting for you!

- Pia Sophia


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