Tuesday, January 19, 2010

...And a Cast of Thousands...

Recently, I read a fascinating post on character lists at Martin Edwards’ terrific crime fiction blog. The question Edwards addressed was whether or not authors should provide lists of characters at the beginning of their works, so that readers can keep track. That topic raises another question: how many characters should there be in a well-written crime fiction novel? The minimum number of characters would seem to be three: the murderer, the victim and the sleuth. Of course, there are almost always other suspects, too. Except for the rare “cat-and-mouse” plot, murder mystery novels don’t usually focus on just two characters once the victim’s dead. That, though, is where the question of how many characters is the right number becomes murky. In real life, murder victims usually have acquaintances, friends, family members, co-workers and others who know them. When the police investigate, they interview many of these people. Murderers also often have “circles” of people whom the police interview. There are also people in the investigators’ lives. On one hand, then, there’s an argument for including lots of characters, since that reflects real life. Besides, a variety of characters adds depth, interest and suspense to a good mystery plot. On the other, long lists of characters can be confusing. Sometimes, too many characters detract from a plot if they don’t serve a purpose in the novel.

Some very well-written crime fiction novels have only a few characters. For example, Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table only has four suspects. In that novel, the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana invites Poirot to dinner to meet his “collection” of murderers who’ve gotten away with their crimes. Also invited are three other sleuths: Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard, Colonel Race of Special Services, and Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s fictional sleuth. After the dinner, all of the guests sit down to play bridge. During the game, one of the guests stabs Shaitana, and the sleuths set about finding out who committed the crime. What’s interesting about this story is that there are very few other characters. There are only four suspects, and there’s only one other major character – the housemate of one of the suspects. There are a few other characters that we meet, but they’re identified clearly, and each of them has the purpose of giving the sleuths (and the police) information.

There are also only a few characters in Robert Pollock’s Loophole, the story of a group of thieves who plot to rob a bank. Mike Daniels, a professional thief and safecracker, decides to aim for a very large haul and rob the City Savings Deposit Bank. To do that, he’ll need help. So he enlists the help of three other thieves: Taylor, Harry and Gardner. He also enlists the help of an unemployed architect, Stephen Booker. The five men plot together to outwit the bank’s security measures; if they can, the prize is worth several million pounds. We do meet some other characters; for instance, Mike Daniel’s wife, Doreen and Stephen Booker’s wife, Jennifer, have roles in the story. But for the most part, the story is centered on only five people.

Mystery stories in which there are only a few characters can be fascinating. They allow the author (and the reader) to explore the characters’ relationships, build up tension slowly and focus on one or a few key events. This can be very effective for what are sometimes called “intimate” murder mysteries, where relationships are very important to the plot.

Other kinds of mysteries, though, work better when there is a larger number of characters. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile includes more than seventeen important characters (that is, characters who play roles in the story and are important for its development). In that novel, Hercule Poirot is taking a cruise up the Nile River. He happens to be on the same ship as wealthy, beautiful Linnet Ridgeway Doyle and her husband, Simon, who are on their honeymoon trip. On the second night of the cruise, Linnet is shot, and suspicion falls immediately on Jacqueline de Bellefort, a former friend and Simon’s former fiancĂ©e. When it’s proven that Jacqueline couldn’t have murdered Linnet, Poirot and Colonel Race (who has his own reasons for being on the cruise) investigate the other passengers to find the real killer. One of the things that make this large cast of characters an effective choice is that it’s realistic. There’s bound to be a large number of people traveling on a cruise ship, so it makes sense to have a larger group of characters.

Spy thrillers also feature a larger number of characters, which is logical, since the spy frequently moves from place to place and has dealings with lots of different people. The same is true of mystery novels where the killer is a serial killer who claims a number of victims. But even other kinds of mystery series do well with larger casts of characters. For instance, there’s a large number of characters in historical mysteries such as Ellis Peters’ Cadfael series. To take an example, in A Morbid Taste For Bones, we meet the monks who live in the Abbey of St. Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury, where Cadfael is a Benedictine monk. One of the monks, Columbanus, believes that he’s had a vision from St. Winifred, asking that her bones be relocated from Wales to the Shrewsbury Abbey. After much debate on the subject, the monks decide to send an expedition to the Welsh village where St. Winifred’s bones lie. Since Cadfael is a Welshman, he goes along with the expedition. When the monks arrive at the village of Gwytherin, they find, naturally enough, that they’re not welcome in Wales. The locals do not want St. Winifred’s bones moved, and they’re not kindly disposed towards Englishmen, anyway. Tempers flare and when Lord Rhysart, chief opponent of moving the bones, is murdered, the matter gets even more heated. Cadfael, whose loyalties are torn, realizes that until Rhysart’s killer is caught, he and the other monks won’t be safe and they won’t be free to fulfill their mission. We meet many characters in this and Peters’ other novels. For instance, there are the monks, the villagers and their families, and the local authorities. All of them play roles in the story; so again, it makes sense that in this kind of novel, there’d be a larger ‘cast.”

Series that develop over time allow the author to develop a number of characters. In those series, we don’t feel bombarded with characters because we meet them gradually and get to know them. For example, there are many characters in Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series. However, several of them (e.g., the members of the Brunetti family, Vice-questore Patta, Sergente Vianello, and Signorina Elettra) are regular characters. We meet them often enough so that they’re familiar and easy for the reader to remember. In fact, many readers eagerly snap up the newest book in the series chiefly because of those characters.

That’s also true of many cozy series such as Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who…novels and Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy series. Those series take place in small towns with lots of regular (sometimes very eccentric) characters. Having lots of characters makes sense in those cases, though, because it’s logical that there would be several “personalities” in a small town. It’s logical that the sleuth would interact with those characters, too. Besides, those characters recur, so the reader can keep track of them.

So, how many characters is the right number for a mystery novel? The answer seems to be…as many as it takes. Not a conclusive answer, but it does make sense. In some novels, the plot, the context or the kind of murder requires a large number of characters. In others, the same factors require a smaller number. For novels that require a larger number of characters, tools like characters lists and charts can be very helpful. That’s also true of series where the reader may not begin with the first novel in the series. Character lists can help the uninitiated reader get to know the “regular” characters. In novels featuring fewer characters, a list isn’t as necessary.

What’s your view? Do you have a preference for small, “intimate” mysteries that feature only a few characters? Or do you prefer meeting lots of characters as the story unfolds?


  1. Unfortunately, if there are too many characters, I usually get confused (as a reader and a writer.) But then you have a limited number of suspects and it's hard to really come up with a surprise ending.

    On the other hand, though, I've read books where there were so many suspects that I had to flip back in the book to find out who the killer actually was. :)

    I usually go with 5 when I'm writing. And one of them usually dies, so 4.

    Mystery Writing is Murder
    Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

  2. Elizabeth - I know what you mean about too many suspects. I lose track of them, too, and then it's so hard to stay involved in the mystery. In fact, I had that problem with the book I'm working on now. Too many suspects, so I had to go back and rethink a lot of things.

    On the other hand, whether one's reading or writing, if there aren't enough suspects, it's not nearly as interesting and it is hard to put that surprise ending in. I usually stay with 4-5 myself when I write, and can enjoy about the same number as a reader.

  3. I get confused with too many characters, too. Somehow, I went through a Robert Ludlum reading binge many years ago, and I never could keep everyone straight. Maybe that's why I stopped reading so many spy novels.

  4. Alan - It's funny that you would mention Robert Ludlum. I read some of his novels, too, years ago. Spy novels like that really do have a lot of characters in them and it can be hard to keep them straight. What's even harder is that even if you do remember names and who's who and so on, it's hard to keep straight who's on which side. Spy novels can be wonderful, but they're not easy to get right for just that reason, I think.

  5. I agree that you need as many characters as you need but I find that many of the characters that appear in my first drafts are really fairly unnecessary to the story.

  6. Cassandra - The same thing has happened to me. First drafts often contain too many events, characters, etc. Then (at least this happens to me), when one reads it all over, one can focus on the main plot and "trim away" what doesn't need to be there. That's what first drafts are for.

  7. I really don't have a preference because I've got favourite books with loads of characters and favourites with only a few - I recently read a book by Irish writer Gene Kerrigan (THE MIDNIGHT CHOIR) in which there seemed to be loads and loads of characters but I never felt overwhelmed by them and I easily remembered who was who and what their relationships were to each other. I've read other books (won't name names) with a quarter the number of characters that have had me struggling more to sort them all out in my head. I guess it all depends on how well the writer introduces them and provides context for them.

  8. Bernadette - I remember your discussion of The Midnight Choir. It seems a really interesting example of a book that does well with a large cast of characters because of the context - a busy police station. I think you've put your finger on a really key factor, too: how the author introduces characters and follows up on them. When characters have a solid context and strong development, we can remember them and it's not hard to keep them straight. When they're only sketched out, or there's no solid context, then it's much harder to organize them and follow their stories.

    Folks, Bernadette's terrific reviw of Gene Kerrigan's The Midnight Choir is here.

  9. Oh dear. Oh dear, again. Wringing of hands commences along with furrowing of brow. My WiP has way more than 5 characters. It's not a cast of thousands, but still...

    It HAS occurred to me already that I may not need all of my characters. Really need. On the other hand, each of them has a unique purpose as well as a unique motive.

    Oh dear. Oh dear again.


  10. Elspeth - Don't worry about the exact number of characters! You made the most important point you could have when you said that, "...each of them has a unique purpose as well as a unique motive." That's what it really takes. Remember that in Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, there are ten major characters. Fear not...

  11. Well, Elizabeth, if you have too many characters, you as a mystery author know what you can do with the surplus ;-)

    What an interesting question, Margot, you do pose some fascinating ones.

    I don't mind if there are many or few characters, so long as the reader has a fair stab at working out the solution. I have read a few books recently in which there were not enough suspects, so if the writing is not very good either, there is a slight sensation in the reader's mind of "joining up the dots" or do I mean "ringing the changes" until the pointer stops at an almost random character who is then revealed to be the murderer. On the other hand, a good author can write a book with only a few characters and keep the reader guessing to the end - you have mentioned a few in your post.

  12. Maxine - Thanks! I must admit, my mind goes along some s-t-r-a-n-g-e paths.... ; ).

    I think you've hit on the real key to it - how the author handles the number of characters and the writing of the plot. If the plot is strong, one doesn't need a lot of characters, especially if all of them are viable suspects. Thin plots aren't good anyway, no matter how many characters the author includes.

    I'd also say that whether few or many characters is the best choice depends on the "fit" to the mystery itself. An "intimate" country-house murder isn't going to have dozens and dozens of characters. On the other hand, a murder in a major city or where there's a large crowd is a different matter. Then, you might want more characters. Neither would work well with an inappropriate number of characters.

  13. Love list of characters, maps, anything to help me when I read a book over weeks rather than hours.

  14. Patti - I know exactly what you mean. Character lists, maps and other organizers are incredibly helpfu, aren't they? Especially when there a lot of characters in a story.