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Have you ever read a book and thought- woah, woah so many characters! And, have you read a book and felt there are way to less characters? So, how many characters should a book have? There really is no answer. Here are two examples to understand.
Hatchet. Gary Paulsen weaves for you a story that is bounty with adventure, thrill, and leaves you mindblown and spellbound. A city boy named Brain goes in a plane with a pilot. He is the only passenger in the plane. His plane crashes, and the pilot dies in a heart attack. He learns to survive alone by making fire, catching fish, building a home in the forest. After his 53rd day alone in the forest, he makes a hole in the plane which had crashed and takes out the survival bag from it. The same day he sees a plane land and come his rescue. But by then, he learns to live alone and save his life. That's it. Yeah, that's a full blown adventure with just one single, small kid as the only and main character.
Bleak House. It is an elaborate, family drama involving around twenty main and impacting characters, and more than forty supporting characters, who also have a key role in how the story moves.
This is just an example. There are other books, with a set of characters that is not unusually low or high. But, even though there is no definite rule to find how many characters a book should have, here are two rules that I follow as a general concept, more out of common sense than anything else, to guide me:
1. Every character in the book must have a role in the story or the plot. If you want to know what is the difference between them, and what they mean, check out my earlier post on a Screenplay and Story Ideas.
2. Every character you introduce must have an ending. It is easy for writers to get lost in the story so much that they forget about certain characters that they introduced in the beginning. A simple way to look at this is run the book in your mind like a play. Every character who enters the stage needs an exit. They cannot be left standing without a purpose in the story.
Depending on the timeline, tone, story, plot and scope of the novel, the number of characters that can satisfy these conditions vary. And, no number is too less or too much, as long as they have a purpose, and they have an ending in the story.
Now, what if your whole purpose is to leave the character without an ending? That's creativity, too! No doubt. If your whole plan is to purposefully to leave a character hanging to let your readers take on it, that clearly doesn't violate the rule because that exactly is the purpose and the exit of the character.
You can write a gigantic epic, or you can write a short story, but the same two rules apply with respect to characters for any form of storytelling. So, next time you read a book, why don't you observe if these rules play out! Are there any other visible patterns? Or, does some brilliant book break this pattern? It's all about creativity, and it's best when they keep evolving!
And, hey, have you ever read or heard the stories of the Indian epic Mahabharata? Finding out the number of characters, their role in the story, their entry and exit would be an interesting exercise!