But it struck me that one thing that almost never comes up is, well, how many characters should I have. How many can my story really support? How many does my story need?
Yeah, that sounds a little odd but some stories need more characters than others. A murder mystery with two characters doesn’t leave a lot of room for red herrings—especially when one of them is dead on page two (thanks, Owen!). If I want to write a slasher or torture porn story, well, I’m going to need a few extra teenage campers to send off into the woods. Heck, think how much it could limit my sci-fi story not to have a red shirt or three that can head up to that ridge to look around.
The truth is, a lot of stories have certain minimums. Nothing’s written down, mind you—there’s no chart somewhere that says romance=8 characters, mystery=15, urban fantasy=23. But, as I just hinted, I can start hitting some odd problems when my story’s understaffed. Suddenly my murderous alien monster seems a little less genetically superior because, well, it’s not managing to kill anyone. Because there’s nobody for it to kill.
If I had to guess, based off my own experience with such things, the screenplay went through a lot of revisions and had a lot of cuts. A LOT of cuts. And one thing that went away was extra characters. All those people with just one or two lines, anybody who only had a single contribution toward advancing the plot, everyone who was only there to look good in a bathing suit or a wet t-shirt. They all got trimmed and cut and combined and suddenly—again, this is my just my guess—this summer camp went from nine or ten counselors to only four. And, sure, each of these four had a lot to do, but they were just too rare for our mystery murderer to kill one of them off at the end of act one. Or even act two. The story couldn’t afford to lose a character, so the killer kept… not killing them.
Essentially, it was a slasher film where nobody got slashed.
Sometimes, weird as it sounds, we need that nubile teen in the wet t-shirt running through the woods. Okay, we don’t need her specifically, but we need somebody there because what happens to that person is setting a certain mood and letting us know some things up front. More characters raise the stakes and heighten the mystery. We need the red shirts, the lab assistants, and that guy who’s acting shifty but has a pretty solid alibi for the time of the murder because sometimes they really are advancing the plot.
Y’see, Timmy, this is one of those things that just falls under experience and empathy. It can’t really be taught, it just needs to be figured out. And I’m going to need to figure it out every single time, because my mystery in the Hamptons is going to (hopefully) be different than my mystery in the Catskills and neither of them are like my Long Island mystery (which partly takes place at the club, so there are at least a dozen suspects. Three dozen if we’re going to consider staff). I need to figure out that perfect balance between enough characters to propel the plot forward, but not so many that I’m bogging it down.
It’s tough, but it can be done. And you can do it.
Next time here… okay, look. Next time I’m probably going to do something quick. I’ll explain why then. But if you’re in the Dallas area, leave the 20th open.
Until then, go write.