Three characters?

Recently a friend of mine shared with me an article which had some writing advice. The advice in question was one point: that every story should have no less than 3 and no more than 4 main characters. And I’m about to tell you (without rambling too much) why this statement contains more shite than London Zoo on prune and fig Friday. Sorry for the imagery…

Now the article didn’t define what a main character is exactly, and discussing that is interesting and perhaps a topic for another day, but what it did do was give an example. That example was that the main characters in Harry Potter are Harry, Ron, and Hermionne, and despite the fact I am in complete disagreement with this definition, for the purposes of this post I’ll stick to it.

Harry, Ron and Hermione. It works, it’s easy to remember and gives us three distinct people to enjoy and watch develop. But wait… what about Draco? He’s really important, especially in the earlier books. He has his own arc, lots of time dedicated to his story, and basically everything else you could want. So does Voldemort, and Dumbledore, and a host of other characters. The more books from this series you include in this example, the more extensive the list becomes, and soon you have half the cast playing an important role to the plot. My dislike for the definition of main character aside, this already is breaking the three character rule.

Of course the narrative stays with Harry’s point of view, but just the fact that the distinction between the main three, as they were labelled, and the supporting web below them becomes blurred is a testament against the aforementioned article. But, as we all know, one book does not make the argument! So, here’s some more to consider.

The Expanse – James S.A. Corey

If you’ve read a few of my other posts, you probably saw this coming ( I love this series), but it is a great example. Each book explores the power struggle between the three nations of the solar system from the POV of multiple characters, split by chapter. The first book, Leviathan Wakes, explores this from the POV of Holden and Miller, but they are not, at least by the definition we’re using, the only main characters. Although if they were this would still break the three character rule — two isn’t three!

The whole crew of the Roci (Holden, Alex, Naomi, and Amos), as well as Miller and Havelock all play major roles in this book, and though the narrative focuses on our POV characters it really wouldn’t exist without the rest of the team. This is before we even consider the wider series where new POV characters emerge in each book, or where the effects of Jules-Pierre Mao, the protomolecule, and a host of other seeds sown in Leviathan really impact the overarching story. That’s just book one, from Caliban’s War onwards we start to have more than two POV characters, and people like Avasarala and Bobbie have major roles in the story.

Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien

Perhaps my favourite example, in fact one of my favourite series, is Lord of the Rings. It has a lot more than three main characters. In fact, if you only count the Fellowship, there are nine! Then consider characters like the Nazgûl, Sauron, Saruman, and Gollum. For such a short epic, there are a heck of a lot of characters. It’s no wonder Tom Bombadil was excluded from almost every adaptation.

Lord of the Rings also brings up, once again, the question on how you define a main character. If it is defined by their impact on the story, then Bilbo and his company from the Hobbit could be seen as main characters here. Perhaps it is defined by whether their death would impact the story, in which case you can argue that Frodo’s death would have merely made it so Sam, and possibly the jolly Hobbit duo or Merry and Pippin, continued the march without him. Borpmir no longer sits as a main character, neither does Legolas or Gimli.

There are lots of paths you can go down, and lots of rabbit-holes to define a main character, and it honestly feels better to identify main characters as the ones you, the reader, perceive to be important. But that’s another story, this post is just about the notion that you should have either three or four main characters, no more and no less.

Most likely there are people who disagree with me, and that’s fine, I’m open to have this conversation with anyone! I will say, for those who want to comment, email, or discuss this with me further, that I have excluded stories which use a first person narrative, whether or not antagonists should be included as main characters, and I have excluded those which have only one main character for simplicity’s sake.

Ultimately my point is that a rule like this can be useful to help you craft a simple narrative, and if you’re writing for children and want to keep it simple, or your story will work better with fewer parties in it, then maybe this rule is right for you. But don’t let it rule you or dictate what you can and can’t do. After all, it’s your story and you’re the master of your world!

If you want a rule, the one I like to use when writing my own things is this: treat every character as though they are the main character. I love building personalities, odd quirks, weird philosophies, and everything else which makes someone who they are into my characters, and when I see an author do this it brings their work to life.

As always, feel free to get in touch and discuss this further, or to suggest a topic. All my information can be found on my contact page, and my own work, including a short I wrote a while ago entitled The Experiment, can be seen on my projects page. You can also follow my blog with the button below, if you feel so inclined.

Three Characters?

  1. I’m not on Facebook, but I think, no matter the platform, there is always an interesting conversation to be had,…

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Published by cbpowellwrites

I'm a writer of science-fiction, fantasy epics, and other speculative fiction works and have a little blog focused on writing and how to become a better writer. Hopefully it is helpful to others, and I'd love to hear more feedback and have more in-depth discussions on all thing creativity. Before turning to writing I worked for a number of years as a chef, following on from my time as a writing and performing guitarist in the South West of England. Perhaps I will upload some music from these days at some point...

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