You should know your overall plot by now and I'm sure you have your cast of characters in mind, now it's time to cut your cast in half, yep, seriously, cut it in half as you have too many characters. Yep, that's right, we'll focus today's article on something most people tend to ignore: how big should your cast be?
Here's the thing, the more characters you have, the more pages you will need to develop them in a satisfying manner. So, unless you're writing the next 1000+ novel I suggest you keep your cast with the minimum number of characters as possible your plot requires.
Why have two bad guys when one suffices? What's the point in having 50 mutants in a film where only one takes center stage *wink wink looking at you 20th Century Fox*?
I'm sure that when you cooked up a cool story you had about twenty characters in mind, that's perfectly natural, it's just too much fun creating people to populate your world. But there's an inherent danger in keeping such a bloated cast: the characters tend to become flat and perform always on the same note, it's what we call stereotypes - the damsel in distress, the bad boy with anger issues, the mad scientist, the dumb jock, etc.
It's always better to have fewer characters but develop them like real people. Real human beings have layers, they might act one way and then feel differently about it later on. And there's always a reason or emotional explanation to every thing we do or say. There's nothing wrong in having a mad scientist for a villain as long you bring something fresh to his personality, something that will make him stand out from the gallery of mad scientists out there.
Why is Indiana Jones THE ultimate adventure hero? He has a real personality, he's rough on the edges yet he's caring, he faces impossible odds but is terrified of snakes, he's got quick wits but insecure when it comes to his father.
My point is, good characters have conflicting traits of personality and to develop these within your story requires screen time or pages.
Less is More: Take the Indiana Jones films, their cast is really minimum, the hero, a love interest, a sidekick and a group of villains, usually mainly represented by a central figure. Same goes for Pirates of the Caribbean and other films, I can go on and on. Even Star Wars started with a minimum cast before expanding their universe.
When I first cooked up the plot for The Lost Kids I had about twenty kids, an entire classroom was supposed to get transported to another world. I had two or three different villains, each with their own agenda, I had a gamma of colorful characters. When people read the first couple of drafts they had a really hard time keeping up with that many characters and the plot was convoluted.
And then I started to realize a number of characters served the same function within the plot, each in their own manner, so when combining these characters into a single complex one, I was streamlining not only the plot but my cast and people got to know them a lot better. It's like going to a party where you don't know anyone, I'll bet the next morning you won't remember anybody's names, except for that one person which you spent some actual time talking to.
I'll go into more details about actual character development in a future article but a very helpful thing to get started is a mini-biography, where the character was born, how was he raised, what are his likes and dislikes, etc. It's like a dating profile
Recommended Reading: In this column Terry Rossio explains the importance of spending a LOT of time picking just the right name for your characters.
Tomorrow I'll discuss character functions within the plot and how to better construct them to serve your plot without having talking puppets walking around. There will be a few articles on character development but if there's something you'd like me to cover specifically, leave your suggestion below Thanks!