How Many Main Characters?

I would say that most books only have one or two POV characters. Having more than that can get confusing, and the writer’s job is to clarify, not to confuse. It also makes the writer’s job easier to have only a few POV characters… writing is hard, and why would you want to make it harder than it is?

The way I see it, main characters and POV characters are different. A main character is a character that appears often in the story (but you’re not necessarily getting into his POV), while we get to actually see the world from a POV character’s eyes. I’d say it’s OK to have more than two main characters – and a story doesn’t quite work if you only have one main character, unless he’s got a split personality disorder or living in a dreamworld, and both of those scenarios would be hard to pull off in fiction.

With most of my stories, I find that I usually have around five main characters and one or two POV characters. Most of the time, I don’t consciously pick five main characters, it just so happens that when I’m doing the outline, five main characters is what I need to accomplish the story’s goals. Kind of strange.

I suppose the number of main and POV characters would depend on the length of the work. Obviously, shorter novels are going to need fewer, and long fantasy or classic novels will need more. But I would go with whatever is least likely to confuse the reader, and whatever is least likely to drive you crazy as a writer.

7 thoughts on “How Many Main Characters?

  1. (Between Tuesday’s post and this one, I’m starting to think you’re reading my notebooks 🙂 )

    My current story has had four different POV characters so far (a lot for a story which will probably be a novella, I know — but there are a few different storylines, and also I want to show my protag from perspectives other than her own).

    I think it can be good to have the the POV character not be the one who’s driving the action. I was trying to clarify this idea once, and rather than go into a long explanation, I just said, “Sherlock Holmes, John Watson.” They got it right away. 🙂

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    1. Sometimes it is better to have the POV character be a little bit more objective… it puts the story through an interesting lens.

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  2. I tend to keep the POV’s limited as well, but in my WIP novel I periodically break away from the main one for a page or three just to give an idea of what’s going on in other places.

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  3. I would say about five main characters is about the limit, but it depends how they are introduced. If they all appear too quickly, you give the reader no chance to get to know them and confusion follows.
    On character names I have a rule – NEVER have two main characters whose names begin with the same letter. If Richard and Robert haven’t appeared for a while, the reader doesn’t want to have to flick back to remind themselves which was married to Jane and which to Jenny.

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