Deciding on the Number of Characters in a Short Story

In our desire to write a story that is packed with insights emanating from different types of characters representing widely divergent point of views, we end up with so many characters who are either too underexposed or too vague for the readers.

So how many characters could we put in and develop effectively in our story, without confusing our readers?

For a short story that would not exceed fifteen (15) pages, at least one major character and a maximum of two should do well. Then you can add at most three (3) minor characters, even as other writers manage without any minor characters at all. It depends on what kind of writing technique you are going to use and how “short” your short story will be. At any rate, you should be careful not to give your minor characters very long speaking parts so as not to sacrifice space for your major characters.

Controlling minor characters

Minor characters could be friends, fellow customers in a restaurant, an antagonist’s ally or anybody whome the major characters would interact with as you expose them and as the story progresses. But even as you limit the exposure and speaking parts of your minor characters, you should be able to justify their existence and make them a worthy part of your story.

For instance, if you would write a story about a doctor who has been blaming himself for the loss of his child, you could make him interact with a doctor friend, or maybe his own patients who would like to console him. Your minor characters will exist briefly in your story and may or may not cause a significant impact in the life of your major character. With too many minor characters in a room or at any given part of your story, you may confuse your readers as to who is talking and what his/her relation is to your major character.

Controlling major characters

Major characters or protagonists need as much time and space as possible so you won’t be confusing your readers with their intentions and choice of actions. If you choose to use your major character’s point of view (POV) in expounding your story, you would help yourself if you won’t mix in too many POVs in a limited space. If you do well with one POV, then do so.

If you challenge yourself and put in more major characters than you can handle, you risk losing your readers or you can also expect them to get confused with your story. So to be able to expose your characters effectively, consider their number and length of lines in a given scene.

All characters present

When you’ll have a scene where everyone is going to be present for a confrontation, discussion, celebration or whatever kind of gathering, you will greatly please your readers if your characters can give a confusion-free, strong, engaging and catchy exchange of dialogues. If you can make this work, you can be sure you’ve successfully given your readers a story that’s definitely worth their time.

Copyright © 2003 Arlene M. Paredes

Arlene M. Paredes writes short stories, features and essays. Her first nonfiction book will be released this year. She maintains an online journal as a form of writing exercise. You may contact her at

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