You need precisely as many as is necessary to tell your story. Unless you count Wilson, Castaway had one. The same can be said for I Am Legend starring Will Smith. On the flip-side, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace has 559 named characters. What it boils down to is the intent of your novel.
In my first book, Rebirth, there are only a handful of characters who find themselves at the mercy of an artificial intelligence somewhere in the midst of space and time. Conversely, my second novel, The Drift has an entire town of characters plus others from another civilization seeking to oppress them for their own gain.
There is a big difference, however, in main and supporting characters. In my humble opinion, I think there should be no more than three pivotal characters in any given novel; more just clouds the waters. It is, however, important to note that a character doesn’t necessarily have to be a person. A pet, town, alien, or even an inanimate object can be a character if written right. Take for example Cujo, Predator, Fargo, or Christine.
Main characters, living people or otherwise, should be meticulously developed. Readers need to connect and relate with these characters, positively or negatively, in order to be fully engaged in the story. The supporting cast is more like white noise – something in the background to add credibility to the scenes.
I will tell you from experience that writing about a single lead character with a supporting cast is far easier than juggling multiple characters with a significant role. That said, the latter is far more satisfying if done correctly.
Here are my suggestions for aspiring authors:
1. In your first book, have one central character and a small supporting cast.
An approach like this will give you the opportunity to shine with the creation and development of your protagonist. The supporting cast will allow you to explore alternative character concepts.
2. Focus on character development for a rich reading experience.
Force us as readers to get to know and love or hate your protagonist. Give us some background to work from and then let us witness how they behave and relate to others. Don’t forget to include a few basic details – ethnicity, age, build, physical features, etc.
3. After your first book, branch out to a broader cast.
Once you have shown that you can do it with one character, show that you can do it with more. Write a book where you have several main characters. Think of the television series Lost which had at least six pivotal characters.
4. Make each character distinct from the others.
Whatever you do, don’t stereotype or duplicate. Make each of your characters unique in their own way. Perhaps one is disabled from a war wound and another is challenged with autism. You don’t have to give them afflictions; the point is that you make them different. Think of the cast of Gilligan’s Island. The amazing thing about that example is that I don’t have to call out names; we know and love them all, Gilligan included.
5. Write your characters outside of your comfort zone to push your creativity.
If you’re a man, try writing a female lead. If you’re white, try writing the experience of a black man. Why would I suggest this when we are told to write what we know? Simple. You’ll be broadening your horizons and developing your craft.
As always, best of luck with your writing and keep at it. See you soon…