Pah! Too many characters?

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This post is by Nancy Jardine.

Yesterday I posted a question on two of my Facebook places where I appealed to those who are readers. I asked them:

“What would you consider to be the maximum amount of main characters you’d be comfortable with in a historical adventure novel?”  (NB I pronounce the ‘h’ so I don’t use ‘an’ before the word historical)

I had some excellent and varied replies, one from a fellow Wranglers who contributes to this blog. It might just be the friends who replied but I was delighted to find that, on average, they said they felt comfortable with at least 3 main characters and a few others who play minor roles. Since I’ve currently got a good cast of characters in my ongoing manuscript, I’m feeling totally relieved! What isn’t so easy for the author is to ensure that each character’s POV (point of view) is clear and not a dog’s breakfast.

Only one person categorically said they preferred a novel to have only 2 main characters. I wasn’t surprised by that response because I’m fairly sure that person tends to prefer historical romances which have a slightly different remit from general historical novels.

Speaking broadly, I’d say Historical Romance needs to have 2 main characters, the whole story being constructed around their developing romance. Another element to historical romance is that it must have a happy ending and the expected norm is the happy ever after for those 2 main characters, who will love each other forever.

Historical Novels are something else and it’s a genre that’s harder to define. Again, this is a broad definition (and may easily be disputed by many) but I think a historical novel needs a setting that’s in a period of history (often no earlier than 50 years before the publication of the novel) and is a story which conveys the day to day elements of the political, social and living conditions of the time. It’s a story which has realistic detail, is credible and faithful to the era as is known. It’s often centred on identified historical figures, or a known historical situation. In many historical novels there are a lot of characters but that’s not the same as them all having their own POV as the story progresses because they might just be people who are mentioned as the tale unfolds. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel has multiple characters, and many confusing POV shifts, so and I found it quite hard to keep things clear as I read that story.

Historical Adventure is probably even harder to classify. Taking the ‘adventure’ part first—broadly speaking, it’s a series of events and challenges which happen out with the daily norm for the characters involved. The protagonists find themselves in unusual, sometimes unexpected situations of danger. There tends to be a lot of physical action involved as characters resolve their predicament. The historical context generally places the protagonists in a known era where they battle their wits against the conditions they find themselves in. This might make the elements of historical accuracy become overshadowed if the action happens to characters that are not known figures in history texts. I’ve also found that it’s perfectly possible to have many characters, though it’s all about whose point  of view is being presented by the author.

If I lined up my cast it just might resemble something like this image of the cast of The Three Musketeers  film of 1921. Thankfully most will just be ‘popping in and out’!

teh-three-musketeers-film-cast

Cast The Three Musketeers 1921 – Wikimedia Commons 

Then we come to Historical Fantasy Adventure. Those that I’ve read often have multiple characters inhabiting their version of a historical setting with similar characteristics and events as Historical Adventure. However, when it comes to POV what is the tendency? Is it for each character to have sections where they are centre stage and their POV is the ongoing one for that section? J.R.R.Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings has an enormous cast of characters but since it would have been an impossible task to present it in Frodo or Bilbo’s perspective then Tolkein opted for a Narrator and wrote in Third Person (Omniscient) so we get all thoughts and feelings from that one perspective. This can be odd at times!

Add a dash of romance into the historical adventure and it means you have to have at least 2 of your characters involved in their developing relationship alongside a whole gamut of people and other happenings.

I asked the question on Facebook because I’ve a lot of characters in my current writing—Book 4 of my Celtic Fervour Series- which is a Historical Romantic Adventure. In my series the initial main characters in Book 1 make reappearances in later books, though other family members ‘take their turn’ at being the main characters. As I write Book 4, I presently have 3 main characters and 2 others who have ‘episodes’ where I’m also writing in their perspective. Whether or not my final manuscript will be the same, is yet to be determined. What I’m trying very hard to avoid is a dog’s breakfast of points of view!

In an effort to clarify characters for my readers, I intend to include a ‘cast of characters’ at the beginning of the novel, as I had in Book 3. I might even draw a family tree structure for my Garrigill kin for Book 4 as well as maps of the country as I did for Books 2 & 3.

Now I’m wondering what your answer would be to the question?  “What would you consider to be the maximum amount of main characters you’d be comfortable with in a historical adventure novel?”

(Mike Staton you are excused, if you wish,  since you’ve already commented.)

Nancy Jardine’s Celtic Fervour Series of historical romantic adventures is set in first century northern Roman Britain whereas her contemporary romantic mysteries are set in fabulous world-wide cities, Topaz Eyes being a finalist in The People’s Book Prize 2014. The Taexali Game, her Teen time-travel adventure, is set in third century Roman Scotland. She’s a member of the Romantic Novelists Association and the Scottish Association of Writers.You can find her at these places:

Blog: http://nancyjardine.blogspot.co.uk  Website: http://nancyjardineauthor.com/   Facebook: http://on.fb.me/XeQdkG & http://on.fb.me/1Kaeh5G

email: nan_jar@btinternet.com  Twitter @nansjar

Amazon Author page http://viewauthor.at/mybooksandnewspagehere

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.https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Three_Musketeers_(1921)_1.jpg

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16 Responses to Pah! Too many characters?

  1. I don’t read many historical adventure novels, so I really couldn’t say. However, if the concensus is three characters, that’s probably about right.

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  2. Doris says:

    To me, the cast of characters would be the number to tell the story as completely as possible. Three would be minimum. Sometimes you just need more than one voice.

    Great post. Doris

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  3. Nancy,
    I don’t read Historical Romance Adventures but I’m open to any type of book if it’s a good story. With that said, I think three would be the ideal amount of characters. You have the romance which is two people but you also need a villain. The better the villain the bigger obstacles for the main characters to overcome.
    Thanks for posing the question and getting us to think.
    – Stephen

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    • Nancy Jardine says:

      Thanks, Stephen. My series isn’t Historical Romance because it has too much ‘historical else’ going on, but as it’s a kind of a saga (meaning covering the lifetimes of family members) there are romantic relationships going on as well. There’s a political situation that affects all the protagonists in so many different ways.

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  4. Mike Staton says:

    My fantasy novels were done from different POVs. Sometimes a scene was done from my Prince’s POV, another time, his lover, the thief. And so on. And like Buehler pointed out, a good fantasy novel has to have a villain, so I sometimes did a POV from my sorceress, Illisandra. All in all, I probably used 5 or 6 POVs in each novel. I enjoyed doing these tales that way because I could reveal the inner thoughts of these characters at various times of the story. Now my Civil War novel… it was scene only from the POV of my main character, the soldier, Bill Stamford. The two women in his life, Franny and Becky, were only scene through his eyes and thoughts. A while back I read a book by a creative writing professor who said we need to stay away from strict rules on POV, she had no problem combining third person and OMNI. So sometimes I would slip in OMNI when I wanted to give the reader some historical background. There was a whole lot more historical background in the first draft, but I cut a lot of it out because it was a drag on the pacing. I also made Bill a well-read son of a newspaper publisher, so that he could know quite a bit about events leading up to the war. Had I made him a farmer’s son, I would have had to write an entirely different story.

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    • Nancy Jardine says:

      Bingo! You got it, Mike. Having say 4 characters doing ‘scenes’ from their POV means that the author has to be so careful not to allow the whole pace of the novel to drag. The person’s ( main character) situation is also crucial as you point out.

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  5. Gayle Irwin says:

    I think between three is a good number; if you add the romance element, obviously, you need two, and of course 3 adds the villian element. Adding minor characters allows an author to introduce people that may become the main characters in future books in a series; my friend Elizabeth Martin has done that in her triology starting with “Sahra’s Quest.” Gret post, Nancy! Thanks for giving us opportunity to ponder and give our thoughts. Good luck with your new manuscript!

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  6. Wranglers says:

    Lots of information. I don’t really know. I’ve liked from one character on it. Depends on the story. Sorry not much help.from.me. Cher’ley

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  7. Neva Bodin says:

    I guess depends on who your audience will be also. But 3, or 4 at the most I’d think. With 2 you can still have a lot of characters, even a villain, just seen from someone else’s POV of course. However, too many can slow me down as I review details about who’s talking now. I read one that introduced a new character each chapter for about 6 or 7 chapters. Then when the story went on, I was turning back like a reference book to “get” the character that was in the scene now. I’m sure you’ll sense when you have it right! Good luck!

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  8. Writing multiple POVs are difficult for me. I like to keep one POV usually but then again, I write mostly short stories. I’ve done a few short stories with alternating POVs and it was challenging but I think when it came down to it, it helped me tell a more complex layered story that I was really happy with. I think that’s the bottom line. You want to achieve maximum emotional resonance with your reader and if it takes 2 or 3 characters to do that, then that’s what your story needs. I think if you feel comfortable and satisfied with it, you will know you’ve chosen the appropriate amount of main characters. Great post, Nancy!

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    • Nancy Jardine says:

      Thanks, Sarah. I wasn’t satisfied with having more than three main characters, each with their own POV. Time will tel!

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  9. S. J. Brown says:

    I am thinking 3 is a good odd number. Three leaves you open to more possibilities, twists and turns. Personally I don’t know how fiction writers manage to keep everything straight. Keep writing and keep us updated.

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