Monday, 15 July 2013

How many characters in a novel?

When starting a new book, a vital question is: how many main characters will take part in the story? This is closely linked with the question of how many murder suspects to include, although the two issues are not quite identical. I often give this a lot of thought, because it is vital that readers care about the characters, even if they don't like some of them. My latest reflections on this topic have coincided with reading a book by Ruth Rendell which highlights the dilemmas that an author can face.

I mentioned the other day that I pay attention to and try to learn from critical, as well as positive, comments in reviews, as long as they seem sensible, and supportively meant. In relation to a couple of books I've written in the past, a question has arisen about whether the early part of the book was challenging because of the introduction of a significant number of people and plot strands. (On this topic, Kate Ellis and I agreed at Blackpool last week that our tendency in this direction had been influenced by those wonderful early series of Taggart by Glenn Chandler.)

In The Frozen Shroud, I tried to address this by reducing the number of potential suspects. This made me worry that the solution to the mystery might be too obvious, but I'm reassured by the reviews that are in to date. With my new book, though, I'm going to tackle the issue in a different way.

Ruth Rendell's The Saint Zita Society boasts an unusual way of helping the reader disentangle what was going on. Rather than have a 'cast of characters' in the manner familiar from some trarditional mysteries (those fine writers Ngaio Marsh and Christianna Brand were keen on this device), the publisher included a diagram of Hexam Place on the endpapers of the book. This showed the houses and listed their occupants. A neat concept though I have to say that, even so, I  found myself overwhelmed with the number of people who cropped up in the first fifty pages, not something I've ever experienced when reading with this gifted writer. Clearly, she too is continuing to experiment with her approach, and that is what keeps authors fresh..


Anonymous said...

Martin - I couldn't agree more that experimenting and a bit of innovation keep an author fresh. As to the number of main characters, I honestly don't think that there is a 'magic number.' I personally prefer not to add too many because the more main characters one has the more backstories one's got to develop, and that can make a story cumbersome. I always try to answer that question with, 'as many as you really need to tell the story.'

seana graham said...

I'm reading Alan Glynn's Bloodland at the moment, and it is unusual in having about five different starts, most of them with dyads of men. Although part of me rebelled at such a complex beginning, it isn't actually that confusing, and the connections between all are revealed soon enough. I think it's a bit of a gamble these days, but it is a good way to open out a big story. Halfway through and I'm quite intrigues to see what happens, but I'm not sure all readers these days will wade through a lengthy set up.

aguja said...

Most interesting. When I read, I am not perturbed by the number of characters - only when the author seems to have lost grip of them, or that they have no real purpose in being there.

I agree with Margot's comment.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these comments, which (like those on Facebook on this topic) encourage me to do more bloga about writing dilemmas.
Margot, I have a very similar view to yours.
Seana, I guess the best writers can get away with things some of us can't, though I'm not sure the Rendell book is one of her best.
Aguja, good to hear fromyou again.