How Many Main Characters Should a Novel Have?

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how many main characters

When writing a story, it’s important to consider the number of main characters in the story. How many main characters should a novel have? The answer is simple but not definitive.

I would say that it depends…

The number of main characters affects the complexity of the story and also determines whether the lead characters have a solid character arc.

Having many main characters has its advantages, but it can also be a bad thing if it becomes too confusing for audiences to follow.

There are several reasons why a story can include many main characters and just as many reasons why it can’t.

Read on to see why.

What is a Main Character?

A main character is a character that has a central role in a story. The main character is a strong presence in the story and is usually present at the beginning, middle, and end of the story.

The main character has goals and obstacles that keep her from achieving them. Otherwise, it’s just a list of people and places without any real purpose.

The main character also drives the plot forward in fiction writing. To do that, they need some kind of conflict for the story to move forward.

Character Roles and Types of Characters in Literature

There are five main roles in stories: the protagonist, antagonist, love interest, confidant, deuteragonist, and tertiary characters.

These are not the only kinds of characters you will encounter in your writing, but they are the basic ones that form the backbone of many great stories.

In fact, let’s just throw all the other characters in the tertiary section.

Character Roles

5 character roles

Here are the five character roles:

  1. Protagonist: This is the main character in any piece of fiction. Protagonists are often central characters because they have a larger role in the narrative. They are usually the heroes of the story. Protagonists are often the ones who start the story. Sometimes the narrator of a story can be a protagonist—and in such a case, the narrative is in the first person.
  2. Antagonist: The antagonist is the main character of the story. This is the bad guy, the evil person, the person you hate. Antagonists often play an important role in stories because they help us understand the capabilities of the protagonist. They are also used to convey the moral of the story. An antagonist is not the same as an anti-hero; anti-heroes are villainous people who function in a protagonist’s role.
  3. Romantic Interest: This is the protagonist’s lover or object of desire. The love interest should be interesting enough to get the protagonist invested in his or her story arc. The love interest should also be well written to avoid clichés. The relationship between the two characters should evolve throughout the narrative.
  4. Confidant: They are the protagonist’s sidekick or best friend. The confidant helps the protagonist achieve their goals. They may also help the protagonist out of a jam or give them advice when they need it.
  5. Deuteragonist: Deuteragonists are the main secondary characters that play an important role in the story. They also tend to overlap with confidants. Examples of deuteragonists are, Achilles Davenport; and sidekick deuteragonists such as Robin (Batman) and Dr. Watson (Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories).

Types of Characters

1. Dynamic Character

a kid plays as harry potter
A kid plays as harry Potter.

This is a character who changes through the course of the story. It does not always mean that the character becomes a different person; sometimes it just means that they develop new skills or characteristics.

Dynamic characters in literature include Harry Potter, Ebenezer Scrooge, Anakin Skywalker, and Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

2. Static Character

Static characters (flat characters) do not change a lot throughout the story. Most of the characters change, whether physically, mentally, socially, or politically.

But these characters often have a major trait that remains the same.

Some popular static characters are Mr. Collins in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Sherlock Holmes, Scar in The Lion King, and Atticus Finch.

a man dressed as sherlock holmes
A man dressed as Sherlock Holmes.

3. Round Characters

Round characters are realistic characters whose behaviors and personalities exhibit receptiveness and the capability to change.

Some examples of round characters include Severus Snape in Harry Potter, Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.

4. Stock character

This type of character is easily recognized by readers or audiences because it appears frequently within a specific genre.

Famous stock characters include

  • The Dark Lord
  • The Loner
  • The Mad Scientist
  • Prince Charming
  • Le femme fatale
man portraying the dark lord in a literary play
Man portraying the dark lord in a literary play.

5. Symbolic Character

The name of this type of character is self-explanatory: they symbolize a concept or theme. They may be main or supporting characters or have dynamic qualities, but they are mainly there to represent a broader concept or theme.

6. Foil

The foil is quite a fascinating literary character. Foils portray qualities that are diametric to those of the protagonist.

These characters are not necessarily the principal antagonist, but their qualities or personality will oftentimes bring conflict with the main character. And… this clash brings forth the protagonist’s own traits to help the reader understand who the protagonist is.

Some of the well-known foils include Brutus in Julius Caesar, Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet, Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series, Mr. Wickham in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Emilia in Othello.

7. Tertiary Characters

Tertiary characters play supporting roles. These characters do not necessarily help advance the plot but may interact with the characters now and then.

Tertiary characters have to be included in the story so that you have a well-rounded story. After all, everyone has a few extras in their life, so why shouldn’t a fictional story have some?

So, although they don’t contribute much to the plot, tertiary characters play an important role in the story by adding realism and depth.

How Many Main Characters Can There Be in a Novel?

Although many people are used to the idea that there should be one main character, you can go about your lead in many different ways.

Some stories will require you to have multiple major characters. It’s all about creativity, and creativity cannot be governed by rules written in stone.

So, there is no exact limit, only limiting factors. Limiting factors on the overall number of characters or main characters you can have in a book.

The number of characters depends on what kind of story you want to tell. Two of the most determining factors are genre and length.

If it’s a short story, then you only need a few characters, but a longer piece of fiction will probably need several different characters.

That is quite obvious, right?

Yes, but when it comes to genre, it isn’t as obvious or simple, especially for newbie writers.

jrr tolkien's the fellowship of the ring
JRR Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.

For example, romance novels usually have fewer characters than fantasy and science fiction novels.

Romance novels usually have 2-4 main characters, Horror have 2-8, Fantasy and Science Fiction have 1-13, and Mystery has 2-5.

Seasoned writers have mastered the art of having multiple main characters in their novels.

The fantasy and sci-fi genres have enjoyed success due to the efficient use of many main characters. For example, JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones have multiple main characters.

However, if you know these books, you know that they are humongous—the Lord of the Rings has about 1200 pages.

So, if you want to write a story with as many characters and as long as these books, you have to—at least—be a dedicated and talented writer.

Because… no one has the time to read over a thousand pages of rubbish.

How Many Main Characters are Too Many?

Now that you know that you can have more than one main character in your story, the question becomes,

How many main characters are too many?

The answer is: as many as the story can handle.

I cannot give you a one-size-fits-all answer, but I have tips that can help you decide how many characters your book should have.

You know that your story has too many main characters when:

  • Balancing POVs between the many lead characters.
  • The story seems to stretch because you want to fit everyone in.
  • Your reader can hardly understand what is happening in each scene due to the dozens of POV switches.
  • The death of one of your lead characters has a low impact.
  • Connecting the lead character’s story becomes hard.

How to Decide How Many Main Characters to Have in Your Book

writer thinks about her main characters
Writer thinks about her main characters.

As I have already stated, your novel can have as many characters as it can handle. So, how do you go about determining which character makes it into the story?

Here are six steps that can help you:

  1. Create a list of all the main characters you intend to have in your story. You can write down more than two lead characters during this stage.
  2. Add notes on their purpose in the story. If a character doesn’t serve a relevant purpose, they should be removed from the list.
  3. Analyze the importance of the perspectives of the remaining characters. Is it sufficient to move the story forward?
  4. If you have removed some characters that you liked, you can add their traits to some of the remaining ones. You can merge two or three characters.
  5. Separate the lead protagonist and antagonist candidates. From the separate list, choose one lead protagonist and one lead antagonist.
  6. Go back to other characters and keep removing less important ones until you get close to the number your story can have (in the suggested ranges).

Tips on How to Write a Novel with Multiple Main Characters

1. Have Valid Reasons

Every main character should have a sufficient purpose in the story. You cannot waste your time writing all those characters just because you “felt” like they had to be in your story.

You might want to add lead characters because you want to expand the geographical setting of your story. Maybe you want to portray a lot of things, to show the readers the emotional element of the characters’ intricate webs of relationships.

Your story might be about families, friends, or organizations, and you may wish to dive into the complexities of their relationships.

2. Explain the In-Betweens

It’s important to remember that the reader doesn’t know what happens between scenes; it’s your job to establish this context for the reader.

I’m saying you should ‘tell,’ but you cannot let the reader’s imagination guide them throughout your novel.

When you POV from one character to another, you can either use double space between paragraphs or centered typographical dingbat. Most writers use * * * when jumping to another scene or changing the POV.

3. Make the Characters Distinct Enough

If you want to write a novel with many characters, then each should have at least two defining characteristics.

If there’s a character who shares one trait with another character, try to add one or more defining characteristics to make them distinct enough.

Give each character his or her distinct voice and perspective. You can’t have three main characters who talk like each other.

Try writing short scenes from each point of view. This will help you figure out what makes each character tick, which will come into play later when you decide how they interact with one another.

4. Develop an Arc for Each Character

plot points on a story arc
Plot points on a story arc. (Image credit: “UJ005: Figure 2.3” by Rosenfeld Media on Flickr CC BY 2.0)

It’s important to remember that this doesn’t mean you should only focus on one character at a time. The arcs will probably overlap, but you should spend some time creating individual arcs.

Your protagonists, regardless of how many there are, should be unique, three-dimensional characters.

Ensure that each character’s arc is comprehensive, with what they want, distinct challenges, rising tension, and a solid resolution.

5. Choose Carefully

In the previous section, I said that one of the considerations when choosing the number of main characters is genre.

So, before you write your story, you should ask yourself whether it will be action-packed or character-driven. Some stories fall into genres where action stories usually revolve around one main character who makes decisions and tries to overcome challenges as he or she works toward a goal. This type focuses more on the plot than character development.

Character-driven stories focus on character development rather than plot. They may involve several characters who all interact with each other and try to influence each other.

6. Think about the Reader

I always say one should not let anything limit their creativity, but, at the end of the day, we want our art to be enjoyed by an audience.

Therefore, you have to make sure that, with multiple protagonists, your readers can connect with each of them.

Whether they are on the good side or are evil, arrogant, and snobby, you’ll have to make your readers empathize with them.

In fact, steps 3–4 are about the writer writing a story that the reader will have an easier time understanding.

Final Words on How Many Main Characters a Novel Should Have

Telling a story with multiple main characters is entirely your choice as a writer.

However, there are a couple of factors that need to be considered. For example, the complexity and length of the story.

A more complex, lengthier story can accommodate a lot of characters because there is so much room for switching POVs and developing character arcs for all of the main characters.

The genre also plays a part; works in the fantasy genre tend to have more main characters than those in the romance category.

Although there are all these factors, the question, “how many characters should a particular story have?” can be answered—ultimately—by the writer of that story. 

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Jessica started off as an avid book reader. After reading one too many romance novels (really... is it ever really enough?), she decided to jump to the other side and started writing her own stories. She now shares what she has learned (the good and the not so good) here at When You Write, hoping she can inspire more up and coming wordsmiths to take the leap and share their own stories with the world.