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 fiancée. 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?