How many protagonists should a story have?

There is, of course, a correct number of characters for each work, but the truth is that the number is entirely dependent on the type of story you want to tell.

You can have a story like One Piece, where thousands of characters have ramifications in the plot, or Cast Away, where almost the entire film is centered on a single character.

That's why answering this question is difficult, because every writer asks me about his story, and even if I start reading it, there are too many factors that only the author knows, and there's no way I can get into his head. And provide you with an exact number

That being said, I can give you an idea of what you'll need to do to give each of your characters a place. After all, the issue isn't whether there are too many or too few characters; there are too many.

Factors to consider

1. Weft length

The length of the story plays a significant role in determining the number of characters that can be included.

To be interesting and memorable, a leading or supporting character must be explored in the plot and have some kind of arc throughout the story.

As a result, if you are planning a short work with a series of specific events, it is best to include a few characters so that you can give narrative and thematic weight to all of them.

A great example is John Polidori's The Vampire, a relatively short work with few characters, but each one is memorable and has a significant impact on the story.

Edgar Allan Poe is another expert in this genre, with almost all of his stories featuring few characters who are all interesting enough to provide the narrative with everything it requires.

The real complexity, of course, is in the long stories, the epic odysseys that span thousands of pages, hundreds of episodes, and movie or video game franchises.

There, the number of important characters is usually excessive, and managing them all correctly requires a lot of planning and discipline. However, one Piece and Lord of the Rings are two stories that have done it flawlessly.

The trick here is that the characters can drop in and out of the narrative as needed. The key point is that a strong cast of main characters acts as a link between the various plot points.

Even if they are separated, the focus can be moved back and forth without causing the work to lose its coherence. Tolkien's first book is primarily about the relationship between these two main characters for a reason.

2. The story's main point

Another important factor to consider is the story's focus. In general, stories that aim to create something darker and more personal require a smaller cast of characters so that we can spend enough time delving into the psychology of each of the participants.

Crime and Punishment is a masterpiece partly because no character is unnecessary, and nearly all of them are explored in depth psychologically, making them memorable and unique.

If Dostoyevsky had made the mistake of adding one or two extra characters, he would have struggled to keep the story's tension, and the reader's attention would have been more scattered.

In the case of more relaxed or adventurous stories, many characters enter and leave the story, so the narrative feels changing and exciting.

That's why the Never-ending Story has such a large cast of characters: one of the story's goals is to feature various adventures that help our main character grow.

In turn, it is important to have several villains in this type of work so that each one challenges the protagonist differently and their character arc can evolve incrementally throughout the plot.

3. Complexity and scale of the story

Of course, I'm not claiming that a story with few characters isn't complex; however, the degree of complexity, concerning the scale of the conflict, is a huge factor in determining the number of characters you should manage.

For example, if you want to tell a complex and deep story about mental illness, do something like Joker, with few characters and a personal scale, so you can spend a lot of time with your protagonist and explore your suffering.

Romance stories benefit from this mentality as well because a large-scale conflict with many characters tends to draw the reader's attention away from the protagonists' interpersonal relationship, which begins to feel banal when compared to other characters. with everything on the line

Simply put, if your story deals with a large number of factions, global conflict, and various complex themes, you'll need many characters to help you run it.

This may appear daunting (and it is), but this is where planning becomes an essential tool for any author.

4. Central theme

It's impossible to discuss character development without mentioning the theme; after all, the true role of a character lies in how it affects and adds depth to this element.

If your topic is complex, has multiple points of view from which to analyze it, and has an ethic strongly related to the context, you must have characters which allow you to explore each perspective.

"But, JEFS, practically any complex theme fits those characteristics, so I always have to include dozens of characters in my stories?" you may be thinking. Nope, not necessarily.

A theme can have many complex aspects, but what matters most is how much time you want to devote to it. For example, if we discuss corruption, we can address issues such as:

  • The corruption that comes through wealth;
  • The corruption that comes through suffering;
  • The corruption that comes from the search for something good;
  • The corruption that comes from a negative self-disclosure;
  • Corruption that heals for one damage dealt;
  • The corruption is cured thanks to the discovery of a secret solution;
  • The corruption is cured by a positive self-disclosure;
  • The corruption is fought through justice;
  • The corruption that is fought through rebellion;
  • And many more!

Each of these perspectives can have a character to help us understand them, but that doesn't mean you have to handle all of them. Instead, take those that match your story and what you want to get out of it.

5. Main Character Arc

Never forget that your main character's arc is the most important one in the story. Therefore, the secondary characters' roles must revolve around assisting that arc to be fulfilled, either by creating specific situations in the plot or by providing teaching opportunities to the protagonist.

When adding a character, always consider their role in the story and how this will affect your main character's arc. If the answer is "not at all," it is superfluous and should not be included in the plot.

Trinity in The Matrix, Jiraiya in Naruto, and Karen in Punisher are all well-developed characters in their respective stories.

Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace, Rose in The Last Jedi, and Henry Bowers in It 2 are examples of characters who are left out and poorly integrated into a story.

Here are resources I recommend to get more in-depth knowledge

Storytelling 101 teaches you how to write compelling stories worthy of commercial success. This is best for screenwriters, novelists, filmmakers, videogame writers and storytellers.

Children’s Books 101 teaches you how to write stories that children will love. This is best for aspiring children’s book authors and storytellers.

Owl AI is the revolutionary AI-powered content production platform that helps storytellers, writers, and bloggers of all subject matter easily create highly-polished content.

Success, Money & Mindset Subliminal is a self-hypnosis recording that we recommend to new writers to help with focus, concentration, creativity, and motivation.

Shadow Work Journal: 240 Daily Prompts contains inner work exercises related to relationships, anger, anxiety, self-love, healing trauma, abandonment issues, depression, forgiveness, etc.

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