Twenty Characters to Start a Book?

Twenty Characters to Start a Book

According to Christine Frazier’s Better Novel Project you need twenty characters to start a book. Her post advocates this as an essential kick-starter for pop-fiction. It cites first chapters for Harry Potter and The Hunger Games (19 each) and Twilight (24). Even generalising for genre-fiction, twenty characters in Chapter One seems a bit much.

The live site is currently offline, but you can use the Internet Archive to read her original ‘nine reasons why’ post from 2014. Frazier is talking about middle-market popular genre fiction and how to build the world of the novel quickly. Her nine reasons are ‘essential’ roles of characters according to a list of (partly Jungian) archetypes. Frazier builds a chart for the three books mentioned.

Archetypes made Real

In her breakdown of the casts of characters, we see archetypes of hero, herald, mentor, along with an assortment of family, authority figures, peers, danger (villains), no-names and extras. It is a slightly arbitrary list that shows a kind of structure, far from a set formula. There are better breakdowns of Jungian archetypes in fiction worth a look later.

But that’s not really what Frazier is looking at. It reminds me of the cast list of a stage play or the casting sheet for TV and film productions. It’s a prompt for ‘who do I need to make this story work.’

As a prompt it raises several questions:

  • how big a cast of characters do you need for a novel in total?
  • how many of them does the reader need to remember
    • by name?
    • by their relationships to other characters?
  • how many can you expect the reader to assimilate in one chapter while also getting along with the plot?

Think of the Reader

Without questioning Rowling, Collins and Meyer directly, is it reasonable to throw twenty characters at your reader in chapter one? If you’ve got the talent to pull it off, collect a prize. Not everyone can.

It breaks the general rule of lists that says humans typically remember between three and seven items in a list. Or in my case two. Possibly only one. The same goes for characters. The Three Musketeers, The Fantastic Four, The Famous Five. People start to struggle with The Secret Seven, The Seven Dwarfs, The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven (my favourite pub quiz question). Nobody remembers The Hateful Eight or all of Ocean’s Eleven.

This twenty characters rule directly contradicts most writers and tutor’s recommendations on first chapter introductions:

  • the fewer the better
  • as few as necessary to get the plot moving
  • no more than [insert number between three and eight]

This twenty character rule obviously varies by genre and length of book. Stories about lighthouse keepers might have only three characters – and one of those is a cat. At the other extreme Jane Austen’s social satire demands a society to satirise. Her cast lists break thirty or forty named characters in each novel – some little more than names. Tolstoy goes to town in his sprawling epics; I’m not even going to count characters for War and Peace. I’ll risk the claim that neither of them throws twenty characters into Chapter One.

As a writer, I’m looking at a total cast for the whole book of less than twenty using Frazier’s breakdown.

I’m going to create a rule called ‘drip-feed irrigation’ ™ © R. Catling, 2021.