Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Dilemma of Too Many Characters in Your Novel

by DiAnn Mills @DiAnnMills

The novel is finished. The writer inhales a breath of satisfaction. Now is the time to begin the editing process. But midway through, a dose of reality hits hard. The story has so many characters that it’s difficult to keep track of their names and the roles they play. 

While the problem may look bewildering, there is a solution, and the story will be stronger by implementing the following suggestions. 

List the POV characters and their role in the story
Make a determination:
  • Is each character a protagonist or an antagonist?
  • Why is the character necessary?
  • If the character was eliminated, would the plot change?

List remaining characters
These characters are critical to the story. Or so we think. Below the POV characters, record these names and their role in the story.

Determine again:
  • Is each character a protagonist or an antagonist?
  • Why is the character necessary?
  • If the character was eliminated, would the plot change?

Fix the problem
Here’s where the real work takes place. If the writer has been able to eliminate any characters, great. But let’s consider the worst scenario: the writer believes every character is essential to the story. 
  • Examine each character’s name and role.
  • Reflect on a character playing more than one role. 
  • Choose which character can play at least two or more vital functions.

Below is an example of characters who can add higher stakes and increase unpredictable behavior by supporting varied interests.

Police officer working a jewelry store robbery 
He is up for promotion and longs to prove his mettle
In love with Lynn and plans to propose 
Suspects Lynn may have a problem with painkillers but she denies it

Police officer who is Fred’s partner and working the jewelry store robbery. 
Jack thinks Fred takes too many chances.
Doesn’t like Fred dating his sister Lynn.
Best friend of Brandon.

Fred’s girlfriend and Jack’s sister. 
In love with Fred
Has a prescription drug problem
Brandon supplies the drugs
Persuaded by Brandon to drive the getaway car from the robbery in exchange for keeping her secret.

Highly respected interior decorator
Ex- boyfriend of Lynn
Supplies Lynn’s drugs
Has a gambling problem
Robbed the jewelry store         

The four characters above serve multiple functions in the story. The wants, needs, goals, strengths, and weaknesses of the characters are muddied by their connections to the other characters.

Think time!

How can you reduce the number of characters in your story and add tension and conflict to the story line?

The dilemma of too many characters in your novel - @DiAnnMills on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

If your novel has too many characters you can fix it with these steps from @DiAnnMills on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists; won two Christy Awards; and been finalists for the RITA, Daphne Du Maurier, Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Carol award contests. Firewall, the first book in her Houston: FBI series, was listed by Library Journal as one of the best Christian Fiction books of 2014.

DiAnn is a founding board member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, a member of Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, Suspense Sister, and International Thriller Writers. She is co-director of The Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference and The Author Roadmap with social media specialist Edie Melson. She teaches writing workshops around the country.

DiAnn is very active online and would love to connect with readers on Facebook:, Twitter: or any of the social media platforms listed at


  1. And THIS is why we buy and love your books Ms. DiAnn. Great advice from a great writer. Oh to ramble around your mind for a day. Thank you for sharing. God's blessings ma'am...

    1. Hi Jim, you are so sweet! My mind's pretty scattered at times - but what writer doesn't take on a million projects at once! Thanks for commenting.

  2. I "learned" this in a webinar but you showed us hiw is done with great examples.
    You are a great teacher, DiAnn!

    1. Hi Ingmar, thank you so much. Really glad I could help!

  3. Just because someone appears in the story doesn't make them a character right? I had an edit done where if there was a scene where a waitress brought food she became a new character, and I was thinking, hmmm. Killing your darlings is difficult. :O

    1. Right! If the character is just a player, then call by the role they are playing. Just like you did.

  4. Thanks for the great example, DiAnn. Time to kill a few darlings, or better yet, cut the junk and keep the darlings. : <

  5. DiAnn, I learned from my first agent's suggestion (short-lived and ill-conceived) that I try my hand at cozy mysteries--keep the number of characters manageable and be certain the major conflict is always at hand or in the reader's mind. That concept has served me well. Thanks for this reminder.