Characters: too many or too few?

A well-respected bit of writing advice says you should limit the characters you introduce to your reader. Some have argued that you shouldn’t introduce more than five in the first chapter; others say you shouldn’t introduce more than two or three at any given time.

It’s good advice. Having worked in the food industry, I’m all too familiar with the consequences of being loaded with dozens of names and faces in a short period of time. Pretty soon even the distinctive, memorable ones start disappearing into the vague masses.

Pretty simple, right?

But while I was working on a post-apocalyptic story a few years back, I learned you can have the opposite problem. In this story, I had too few characters, which meant I had way too many.

Let me explain:

When I only had twelve people on the metaphorical stage, I felt like I had to be acutely aware of where very single one of them was at any given time. In order to make their little patch of apocalypse function, everyone had to have multiple roles within their community, and everybody’s opinion and struggles were suddenly a lot more important to the protagonist.

There was no longer ‘the waitress’ or ‘the farmer’– everybody had a name and a history, and even the ones who weren’t particularly close to the protagonist took up a lot of her mental and emotional energy. After all, these are the only twelve people you know.

Increase that number by a few more. Suddenly it becomes a lot harder to account for every single person at every given moment. It was suddenly that much easier to sweep the rest of the cast offscreen as ‘the others’ or ‘that one character’s friends’. The group starts to lose some of its cohesion and dissolves into cliques– which is good, in this case, because you only need to be primarily focused on the ‘in’ group rather than the entire community.

I’ve since written a lot of stories with a lot of different crowds, and this is something I’ve found time and time again: for me, it’s actually a lot easier writing scenes with a crowd than with only a small number of individual characters.

What about you? What have been your experiences with writing groups?  Do you find it easier to write  large groups or small ones? Tell us in the comments!

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