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March 27, 2009

How Many Characters Are Too Many?

I love reading series and books about families or groups of friends. I enjoy secondary characters, especially the ones who bring humor to a story and lighten what would be an otherwise dark book. Secondary characters sometimes help show the hero or heroine in a different light, give us a new perspective and make our main characters seem more multi-faceted to the reader.

A secondary character shouldn’t overshadow the hero or heroine. If they’re that interesting, give them their own book.

A secondary character should have a specific purpose in driving the plot forward. Sometimes they provide important information for the reader and the main characters.

There shouldn’t be so many secondary characters that the story is overwhelmed. Sometimes a secondary character can do double duty, allowing the writer to get rid of one of their cast of characters.

I’m a big Sherrilyn Kenyon fan, but in some of her books I struggle with the sheer number of characters. I can usually get my head around the main characters and the other Dark Hunters who make an appearance. Add Acheron and Simi and I have no problem because they’re my favorites. It’s the casts of Gods and Goddesses who get me confused.

I’m also a huge fan of Lorelei James’ western contemporaries. I emailed her after reading one of her books and told her I loved her latest release but had she considered doing a family tree? I was getting dreadfully confused trying to keep the family characters straight. Several of them have Christian names that start with the same letter of the alphabet, as is tradition in the area where Lorelei sets her books. She ended up adding an awesome family tree to her website. Here’s the link so you can see her family trees.

With my Middlemarch Mates series, I’m currently working on book nine. I’ve been thinking about doing a family tree for my website. I don’t have any problems keeping my own characters straight, but I’m not sure how my readers are faring. If you’re reading my series, do let me know what you think about a family tree.

How many secondary characters do you think are too many in a story? What do you like most about secondary characters? What do you think about family trees? Do you like having them as a reference when you’re reading a book?


  1. Jennifer Shirk

    I love family trees n books. I think Julia Quinn has (had) some in her books, which was great because it was hard to keep all those Dukes straight. :razz:

  2. Amy Ruttan

    I have to do one, I’ve written out the family tree on paper, but as I progress further into my series I realize I’ll need a family tree. *sigh*

  3. Leah Braemel

    Oh, I had this problem when I was reading Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton (the very first Anita Blake novel) I wanted a list of who was who, who was good, who wasn’t, because I found the number of characters so confusing. If a friend hadn’t sent me the entire series to read, I wouldn’t have read the next.

    I’m creating an org chart for my Hauberk series that I plan to put up on my website. I figure readers will appreciate keeping track not only of the characters but may need to understand the structure of the company. There’s the Protection side (the bodyguards & PIs), the Security side (i.e. security guards/alarms), and the Information Technology Security side (monitoring people’s sites for hackers – it’s a growing part of the industry).

    Personally I love books that come with guides like that. I know I’ve read a couple. Stephanie Lauren’s Cynster series springs immediately to mind. I know I’ve read more. (It’s rather like the language guides Sherrilyn Kenyon, JR Ward and CL Wilson provide. I’ve often found myself flipping to them–and getting frustrated when the guide hasn’t been updated to include a specific phrase the characters use.)

    If you’re starting to wonder if the books need a list, they probably do. It wouldn’t hurt, and it would be another little something that fans love to find on websites.

  4. Voronda

    i love the idea of family trees to keep everyone straight in the stories. If there is a long time between publishing the books this becomes very important to the reader.

    There for me are never too many secondary chracters who have a purpose in the story.
    I don’t like books with chracters that have no purpose.

    Yet, there can be too many people with no explanation or acknowledgement of why they are included in the book. Chracters that appear and disappear for no reason.

    I love when there is family and friends in the storyline or aleast a good best friend. Francis Ray does a good job with family and friends. She has the family tree in the front of the book plus when an old chracter makes an appearance you get a little background.

    I often get so involved in the story I want to know what happens to the secondary chracters as much as the primary chracters.

    Also, some books are called stand-alone and people come in and out of scenes from previous books with no explanations of who they are and how they are related to the main story.

  5. Kaye Manro

    I love secondary characters. I talked about them and how they can add depth and support to the main characters on my blog a few weeks ago. And in a series, they can then have their own story in another book.

    But I agree with you, too many can be confusing, as with Sherrilyn Kenyon’s books. I was once told by an editor that I had too many secondary characters in one of my medievals, and it was confusing. I agreed with her and cut or combined several characters. It made the story better.

    I think there should be a family tree or something similar if an author has a lot of characters.

    But some authors can write so well that a reader can easily follow along. Your Middlemarch series is this way, Shelley. But I still would love to see a family tree or something similar.

  6. JK Coi

    I read a series where the family became so involved it definitely needed a tree, and I thought it was a great idea!

  7. Shelley Munro

    It sounds like a family tree is something I should add to my to-do list.

    Leah – LK Hamilton’s series is one that needs a guide because there are lots of characters. I really think Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunters needs a family tree/ guide for readers. Am I right in thinking there is a separate guide published? I know JR Ward has one.

    Voronda – that’s a good point about a family tree being necessary when there’s a long gap between books. If you’re a big reader it’s easy to forget.

    Jennifer – I think I have some Julia Quinn books somewhere. I need to do some research to see how other writers have handled their family trees.

  8. Shelley Munro

    Amy – a family tree is something you could do while you’re on bed rest.

    Kaye – thank you! I think Sherrilyn Kenyon definitely needs a tree for her Gods.

  9. Gabriele

    I usually don’t have problems keeping a large number of characters straight – reading Dostoyevski who is one of my favourite authors is the best training for that. :wink:

    I currently have 93 named characters for my Fantasy trilogy, with 4 (or perhaps 5) MCs, half a dozen main antags/bad guys, and some 20 Also Very Important characters …. and that’s a far cry from Martin or Erikson who have more, I think.

    I do have a geneaology file for my Roman series, but no tree. Maybe adding one in book 3 might prove useful, in case those novels will ever get finished and published. :mrgreen:

  10. Nicola O.

    I love family trees, especially when the book titles are on them for the different couples.

    I think when you get a long series going, you end up with tertiary characters — folks who kind of peek in at the edges and say hi, and the long-time readers are happy to see them and that they’re doing well, but they don’t really have a function in the story other than to be part of the landscape. At most, they may be part of a point about how the main or secondary character(s) relate to family or a small tidbit of information.

    If they are characters that aren’t going to have their own book someday, then I think it’s good if they have a distinctive name and one easy-to-remember personality point, and then otherwise stay out of it. A good example here would be the servants in JR Ward’s series. They show up in most of the books and never step into the limelight, but provide continuity between books and provide a foil for character points.

    If they ARE going to get their own book someday, then you can start them off in the background, move them into a secondary position in a later book, and then launch them into their own story. After that, they go back to tertiary position. ;)

    I’m sure there’s no hard and fast rule, and a lot depends on the skill of the writer, the density of the plot, and the length of the book, but more 3 or 4 secondary characters — people who have strong roles in the plot — seems like the most you want to have unless there’s a really good reason for it.

  11. Nancy Henderson

    I love books that include a family tree. For me it keeps the series fresh in my mind, especially when the author is between releases.

  12. Shelley Munro

    Gabriele – 93? Wow, that’s a lot of characters. I’d have trouble keeping all of those straight.

    Nicola – I tend to have a low number of secondary characters in my books. In my shorter stories i.e. my Quickies for Ellora’s Cave I hardly have any secondary characters, but that’s because of the short length.

    Sometimes with secondary characters a writer doesn’t know if they’re going to have their own story or not. It depends on the way the story unfolds. I don’t do a lot of preplotting, so sometimes the characters totally surprise me and demand their own story. At other times, such as with a family like my Mitchell brothers, separate stories are a natural progression.

    After reading all of your comments, I’m definitely thinking I’ll do a family tree – maybe that’s something I can do while I’m on holiday and experiencing writing withdrawal!

  13. Gabriele

    Shelley, I sometimes wonder myself, esp. since I don’t even use character charts, writing software or anything that would help me keeping them straight.

    I have some suspicions they occupy that part in my brain that’s usually reserved for maths. Because I can’t remember the most simple formula. :mrgreen:

  14. Shelley Munro

    Eek, maths. I had to work so hard to squish it into my head. It’s all gone so I suspect I’ve reused the space with something else as well. :mrgreen:

  15. Barbara Martin

    Wilbur Smith and Diana Gabaldon both use family trees for their book series which is helpful. Secondary characters can and often supply extra insider information to the story as it unfolds.

  16. Kathy

    I like family trees in books. Even the secondaries can have a short blurp to remind the reader who that character was, especially if he/she crops up in another book.