How many characters should a book have? You might have noticed that most books center around one lead character – think Jack Reacher, Jason Bourne, and Orphan X.
Romance novels typically involve two lead protagonists – the two love interests. Fantasy and science fiction can have upwards of 10 to 20 main characters.
Every gene is different and every story is different. What if your book is complex? What if you are writing an epic fantasy saga? What if the plot all but demands multiple main characters?
How many chracters should a book have? If possible, stick to one to three main characters. That will be the protagonist (good guy), the antagonist (bad guy), and the love interest/sidekick/mentor. Of course, it really depends on the story. If you want to write and publish a commercially viable book, use the fewest amount of characters to tell the story.
Then the answer to “How many characters should a book have?” must be handled with a bit more flexibility. A novel with more than three main characters can be tricky to write, so this post is my breakdown of how many characters you should have in your book.
Suggested Read: Why Do Writers Hate Adverbs? (The Final Answer)
The Main Character Count Chart
Yes, you should limit the number of fictional people in your stories. Fewer is often better.
But, that’s not ALWAYS the case. The somewhat longer-ish answer to “How many characters should a book have?” is that you should include however many main characters your story demands. For comparison, here is a simple chart of selected genres and a generally accepted/expected number of main characters.
|Genre||Common # of Main Characters|
Here’s the quick breakdown: Some fantasy and science fiction novels have only one lead character who survives alone on a distant planet or embarks on solo adventures to save the kingdom. Many fantasy and science fiction, though, have a higher number of main characters than other genres (hence the 1-20). Most novels of every genre have 2-5 main characters.
Romance novels almost always have 2-3 main characters, usually with two love interests and a buddy/sidekick for the male or female lead. A mystery novel usually has 2-3 main characters, perhaps even up to 5. There is the detective, the killer and perhaps a buddy or love interest.
So, the answer to “How many characters should book have?” does depend on your story, genre and reader expectations.
Watch this video by Lisa London on the essential characters in a Romance Novel. (Note: she also offers a few helpful hints for other genres)
Horror novels follow this pattern, too. They have the protagonist lead and the monster/bad guy/serial killer antagonist lead.
What is a Main Character?
When answering the question, “How many characters should a book have?” it’s helpful to define a main character. A main character in a novel is the person who takes up more story space. They show up in more scenes. Their actions matter in the story. What they do changes the pace and outcome of scenes, chapters, and the story as a whole.
Types of Main Characters
To kick off this conversation, here is a chart on the most important types of main characters usually found in novels. After that, we’ll look at how many characters are typically found in most mainstream genre novels. We’ll follow that up with a deeper dive into a few of the ways to determine the best number of characters in your specific novel.
|Types of Main Characters||Description|
|Lead Character – Protagonist||The central “good guy” in the story|
Makes the biggest decisions
Takes up most of the story space
POV of most or all of the story
Readers root for this person to win
|Lead Character – Antagonist||The central “bad guy” in the story|
Drives the conflict
Biggest obstacle for the protagonist
Readers want this person to lose
|Love Interest/Sidekick/Mentor||Helps the protagonist/antagonist|
Romance subplot with protagonist
Sidekick usually has specialized skills
(computer geek, organization, etc.)
Often gets kidnapped or murdered
For another take on main character types, check out this article by the NY Book Editors: 5 Important Characters to Have in Every Story. It’s helpful to expose yourself to different angles of the same general ideas when deciding, How many characters should a book have?
What is a Lead Character?
A lead character is a main character who experiences the majority of the story (and, consequently, through who’s eyes readers experience the story ). A main character will take up most of the story space. They show up in a majority of scenes, and maybe ALL of them. They make the biggest decisions of the story. They pursue the main goal most actively. struggle most intensely with the main conflict and stand to lose the most if the antagonist (bad guy or girl) wins. Every lead character is a main character but not every main character is a lead character.
So, a novel can get away with just one character? Maybe, but when puzzling out “how many characters should a book have?”, there is a bit more information to digest.
In reality, most books actually have at least two main characters – the protagonist (good guy) and antagonist (bad guy). Too many of either tends to muddle the story.
How Many Protagonists Can There Be in A Novel?
I highly recommend that you plan for your story to include only one main character. There are exceptions, but they rarely turn out well. Most good stories focus on a single lead character – protagonist. The addition of more than one lead character dramatically increases the difficulty of writing the story.
There are several reasons for this:
- It’s harder to connect with anyone lead character (split alliances)
- Readers can easily get confused (why are we following this other person now?)
- Readers might not realize who they should root for (who’s side am I on?)
- The story will be longer, perhaps twice as long
- The more lead characters, the harder it might be to balance their POV scenes
Note: This is ALSO true for antagonists. One lead antagonist is usually all you need for a compelling story.
How Many Main Characters is Too Many?
Most books read better with fewer characters, not more. So, how do you know if you have too many in yours? While there is no cut-and-dry answer to that question, there are some helpful guidelines.
You can use these guidelines in the planning stages before you write a novel or in the revision stage after you write a novel. Either way, consider the ideas in this article guidelines and not rules.
Like most things in life, there is no *right* or *wrong* answer to the question, “How many characters should a book have?”
The only rule in writing stories, as a screenwriting mentor of mine once said, is that the story must work.
Signs that you *may* have too many main characters in your novel
One good way to answer the question, “How many characters should a novel have?” is to look at signs that you have too many.
Here are the signs that you may have too many main chara ters in your novel:
- You have more than 5 main characters
- You can easily combine two characters without any loss (and likely a gain) of drama, unique characterization, etc.
- Readers get confused between characters
- Readers can’t connect with the characters or story
- The book is long even for genre expectations (most novels tend to fall around 80,000-90,000 words)
- Competing POVs or goals or conflicts diminish (instead of enhance) the story.
For another published authors perspective, watch this video of historical and speculative author, K.M. Weiland, describe the pitfalls of having too many characters in your story.
What about Ensemble Stories?
That’s a great question. Ensemble stories are “team” stories. Think Fast and Furious, or all those Marvel superhero movies. Those are screenplay examples. Story examples are Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin (notice this is fantasy) and Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.
Ensemble stories are rare. When handled masterfully, they can be some of the most profound and moving stories. However, they are tricky and I don’t recommend a beginner start with an ensemble. Better to master the most common type of story with fewer characters before branching out into ensemble territory.
How to Decide How Many Main Characters to Include in Your Book
OK, so now we know all of the above information about lead characters and main characters. Now it comes down to applying these guidelines to your specific story.
Follow this simple step-by-step approach to determine exactly how many characters to include in your book:
- Grab a piece of paper or your favorite note taking app.
- Make a list of the names of each main character in your novel (or planned novel).
- Next to each name, write the purpose they serve in the story.
- Place a star next to (or otherwise highlight) the lead protagonist and antagonist – choose only ONE protagonist and ONE antagonist.
- Cross out anyone who doesn’t serve an obvious purpose. They are likely filler characters that you don’t need.
- Of those who are still left, see if you can combine two or three characters into a single character (The sidekick can also be the love interest, etc).
- Keep cutting and combining until you have close to 5 main characters (unless your story is an epic, doesn’t follow standard genre guidelines, etc)
- Now you have your list of characters!
Pro Tips on How To Write a Novel with Multiple Main Characters
What if, after all this, you still want to write your book with multiple main characters or two protagonists/antagonists?
First, don’t. lol. Just kidding.
If you write a book with multiple main characters, the MOST important thing you can do is differentiate the characters. Every character should be completely different than any other character.
The differences should be global: different names that look and sound and spell uniquely (no Tom and Tony); different appearances (one tall, one short); different skill sets; different personalities; different mannerisms; different flaws; different worldviews; different catch phrases; different speech patterns; different vocabulary; different weapons…
These high level differences will not only make for more interesting characters, but they will also help readers keep track of POV (who is doing or saying what).
Conclusion: How many characters should a book have?
How many characters should a book have? As few as necessary to keep the story focused with a clear protagonist to root for and a clear antagonist to hate.