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How Many Characters is Too Many?

PencilsOne of my favorite things to read is Epic Fantasy – especially the kind that spans multiple books. These heavy doorstop-tomes can run to 1,000 or 1,200 pages, and are often filled with bunches of characters that would do those old “cast of thousands” Hollywood epics proud.

But most forms of fiction do not lend themselves so readily to large casts of characters. Short stories, in particular, can quickly bog down with too many viewpoint characters.

I’ve developed a simple rule of thumb for myself when writing short stories. If I want to write 5-10k, I use one viewpoint character. For the 10-20K range, I go with two. And for a novella of 20K or more, I typically use three.

But it’s not just about length. Some stories are better told with just one viewpoint character, while others demand two or more.

So my questions today – as writers, do you have any rules of thumb for how many characters you use, generally or in a given story? And as a reader, what’s your preference, if you have one?

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