Wednesday, April 24, 2024

10 Ways to Know You Have Too Many Characters in Your Manuscript

by DiAnn Mills @DiAnnMills

Writers enjoy creating a cast of characters. The process of developing distinct story players with unusual physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual traits fills us with satisfaction. But how do we know when we have too many?

The dilemma of too many characters often occurs on the first page when more than two story players struggle for the point of view. We want the reader to identify with one character and establish a sympathetic bond. The writer invites the reader to invest hours and energy to walk the same journey as a story player. Using more than two characters in the beginning often confuses the reader, and confusion leads to putting the story aside.

Over the more than two decades of writing fiction, I’ve formulated guidelines to keep story players to a minimum. If the character has a name, then that signals their role is essential to the story.

These are my guidelines for not only the POV character(s) but also for all the story players.
  • Who is the protagonist(s)? This means two highly crafted characters who will add value to the story by adding their POV. This is often used in romance and sub-romance genres. However, it can be a part of any genre. One of the two protagonists will usually have a few more POV scenes than the other.
  • Who is the antagonist? Not every antagonist is a person. If your story requires a person, he/she must be thoroughly crafted. The antagonist must be a complicated character, sometimes more so than the protagonist.
  • Guidelines for the POV character(s) within your story:
    • Who has the most to lose?
    • What has the most to gain?
    • Who will be present at the climax?
  • Those who satisfy the above criteria are the POV characters in your story. A character can show who they are by their actions, behavior, and words and not be a POV character. This is one of the reasons writers are encouraged to show and not tell their stories.
  • Guidelines for finding the right POV character in each scene:
    • Who has the most to lose?
    • What has the most to gain?
    • Who will be present at the climax? *In some stories, this character might be missing at the climax: death, imprisonment, illness, etc.
  • Guidelines for establishing the remaining cast of characters:
    • Whenever possible give a character more than one role. This reduces the cast and adds more conflict and intricacy to the plot.
    • Subplots work when the resolution of the subplot can only occur when the story plot is resolved.
    • Additional characters must play a role in moving the story forward and/or deepening characterization.
The following list of characters and the roles they play are an example of a tightly crafted story.
  • Joel 
  • Point of view character
    • Small town sheriff
    • Investigating a series of three murders of local ranchers
    • Married to Rachel
    • Father to Samuel, who is a sickly child
    • Son-in-law to Amos who pays for Samuel’s medical expenses
  • Rachel 
    • Married to Joel
    • Mother to Samuel
    • Daughter of a widowed wealthy rancher, Amos, who built her and Matthew’s home and pays for Samuel’s medical expenses
  • Matt 
    • Deputy to Joel
    • Brother to Joel
    • Helping to investigate a series of murders on local ranches
    • Engaged to Elizabeth, Rachel’s sister
    • Future father-in-law, Amos, is building him and Elizabeth a home to begin married life
  • Samuel 
    • Son of Joel and Rachel
    • Very ill and cannot live without costly medicine
    • Grandson of Amos who pays for medicine 
  • Elizabeth 
    • Engaged to Matt
    • Sister to Rachel
    • Future sister-in-law to Joel
    • Aunt to Samuel
    • Daughter of Amos
    • Looking forward to marrying Matt and a new home that father, Amos, is building. 
  • Amos 
  • Point of view character
    • Father-in-law to Joel
    • Father to Rachel and Elizabeth
    • Grandfather to Samuel
    • Willingly pays Samuel’s medical expenses.
    • A thief and the murderer of three local ranchers.

The above example could have several characters, but by limiting the story players to five and placing them in different roles, the plot is filled with conflict, emotion, and unpredictable plot points.

Do you have a method to shorten your cast of characters?


DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She creates action-packed, suspense-filled novels to thrill readers. 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. 

She is the former director of the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference, Mountainside Marketing Retreat, and Mountainside Novelist Retreat with social media specialist Edie Melson. Connect here:

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