Your characters are the most important aspect of your Light Novel (LN).
No, you say, my story is amazing.
Maybe, but unfortunately, it’s not what readers remember. When fans go to buy t-shirts and keychains, they’re not looking for your story, but your characters.
So, you need to make them loveable, memorable, and well-developed. How? Well, there are many ways, but we won’t be discussing them here.
Rather, you must first determine how many characters you should have in the first place. Once you have a general idea, then you can worry about making them shine.
Ok, so how many should I have?
Sorry, there is no correct answer.
To say it in a way you’re probably tired of hearing: you should have as many characters as you need.
Stories with 5 characters are just as successful as those with massive casts of 100 characters spread across 10 factions.
Well, if I can succeed either way, then I can just throw in however many characters I want, right?
You can, but you probably shouldn’t. Instead, ask yourself: exactly how many characters do I need to make my LN work?
What determines your character count is your LN as a whole.
And by that I mean every aspect of your LN. Take your genre, themes, world, word count, etc. into account when deciding on characters.
For example, if you’re writing a Romantic Comedy about a group of high school friends, you probably won’t go over a handful of major characters, several secondary ones, and any number minor characters to facilitate each scene.
But if you’re writing an Epic Fantasy about a war fought on multiple fronts and want to tell the story from each factions’ perspective, you’ll need a whole lot more characters.
If each of your 5 factions has 3 major characters, 5 secondary, and 10 minor, you could end up with close to 100 characters.
That many makes sense in a Fantasy Epic, but there’s rarely any need to have that many in a Rom-Com. Let your genre, themes, and scope of your story determine the character count for you.
Now before you run off with that bit of knowledge, you should know what you could be getting into. Just because you can have 100 characters doesn’t mean you should.
The more ingredients you throw into a recipe, the harder it is to make taste good. You have to pay special attention to each one and make sure it meshes well with the others.
Let’s cover several more topics that will help you determine the best cast size for your writing style. Those being: a look into the different types of characters (major, secondary, minor), common cast sizes, and how to balance your characters.
The Light Novel Character Categories
Before discussing anything else, it’s important you know the different ‘types’ of characters. I’m not referring to their personalities, but rather their level of importance in your LN.
You’ve likely heard these terms before: major, secondary, and minor characters. Each are necessary to make your story progress, but each have very different roles to play and must be handled accordingly.
Your major characters are just that. They are the major players in your story and will likely be present throughout the majority of it. They can come and go, but readers will expect them to have a lot of ‘screen-time’.
Rarely should your story proceed without these characters being there. The main characters need to be your story’s main focus.
It may be tempting to cut to the villains discussing their plans, but doing so is likely to confuse and bore readers. If it’s necessary to understand the plot, have your major characters eavesdrop on them after sneaking in through the air vents or something.
Depending on your story, you could have any number, but it’s good practice to not go over 10 major characters. But even that is a bit high. In terms of quality, I’d rather have 5 well-developed characters than 10 sort-of-developed ones.
However, if you have 100 characters across five factions, then each faction might have 5 major characters, thus giving you 25 major characters.
Despite the high number, readers shouldn’t have any problems adapting to each scenario. If one chapter is in the hero’s war camp and the next is the villain’s, they won’t have trouble switching if you treat each location the same and develop each major character as much as the others.
The number is largely irrelevant. What’s important is how important you make them appear to readers. And the best way to do that lies in how you introduce them.
Each needs their own unique introduction. Preferably one that lasts through an entire scene. Readers need to be absolutely sure that character will be in the story for a long time.
The easiest way to do this is by including an illustration of them the first time they’re introduced. No reader would ever believe the Author would waste an illustration on an unimportant character.
It may be important to introduce several at once for story reasons, but do what you can to avoid that. Introducing too many at once can be overwhelming for readers and make each character come off as unimportant.
Your secondary characters are similar to the major ones, but not as long-lasting. And by that confusing statement, I mean that they’re very important within the confines of their own story.
Let’s say you’re writing volume 3 of your Mystery LN series. Your private detectives, Satou and Yuki, need to solve another murder case lest they starve. And during the case, they meet 5 characters who are instrumental to solving the mystery.
Those 5 would be considered secondary characters. They’re important and readers will spend a good amount of time with them, but they won’t stick around. Satou and Yuki are present every volume, but those involved with each unique case aren’t likely to ever show up again.
However, that logic usually only applies to the Mystery genre. A Harem might have a secondary harem member who only shows up every few chapters/volumes or so.
When introducing secondary characters, you need to establish how important they are to the current volume, but be careful not to go too far lest readers think they’re major characters. Dedicate a few paragraphs to them and maybe an illustration if they’ll show up more often than not.
In general, I recommend not going over twice as many secondary characters as you do major ones. If 5 major, 10 secondary.
Obviously, have as many as you need, but keep in mind secondary characters can become as popular as the major ones, so you don’t want to neglect them too much.
Your minor characters are as you might imagine: minor. They are unimportant in regards to character development, but very important for both your story to progress and your world to feel alive.
These are your taxi drivers, store clerks, innkeepers, and black market dealers. Just like you have to interact with all sorts of ‘minor characters’ on a day to day basis, so will your major and secondary characters.
Their primary purpose is to initiate a scene (a quest-giver in an RPG) or facilitate one (hiring a spaceship pilot to reach the next planet).
As to how many you should have, I can’t give you a number. Unlike the other two character types, it’s basically impossible to have too many or too few minor characters.
You should have as many as you need to progress your story. Just don’t litter your story with them if they don’t serve a distinct purpose (even if that purpose is nothing more than simple worldbuilding).
And as you might expect, they don’t need more than a few sentences for an introduction. They don’t necessarily need names, only their occupations or appearances will suffice. They are the least important—make that clear.
That said, they should be more than faceless, purely-functional entities. Many will tell you that minor characters don’t need to be developed beyond their function, but I disagree.
You should never write a character that functions solely as a plot device. I got this idea from a brilliant interview with Brian Mitsoda, lead writer for the video game Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, in which he says:
“I don’t like my NPCs to be standing around as if their lives begin when the character starts talking to them and end when the player leaves. Characters are the protagonists of their own game, from their perspective.”Brian Mitsoda
His logic is that no matter how minor your character is, they shouldn’t be treated as mere conveniences for your characters. You should treat everyone in your story like a real person with real feelings, a history, and motivations. Doing so will make your LN so much more immersive and engaging.
That said, while they can and should have personalities, be careful not to go too far lest you make them seem more important than they are. Always develop them, but know when to stop.
Your goal is to make each character stick in the reader’s mind, but only long enough for that particular scene/volume.
Unless you really went out of your way to make them seem important, it’s safe to assume they can never be mentioned again in subsequent volumes. If they are, you’ll want to re-establish who they are and what purpose they served in the last volume.
As a side note, don’t worry about creating these minor characters during your outlining phase. As your story progresses, you’ll discover how many you need based on what your story needs. Every minor character in my novels popped out of nowhere because they were needed.
Exactly How Many Characters?
Again, there is no ‘right’ answer for how many characters you should have in your cast, but there is always an answer to the question: “how many characters can I handle?”
Determine the best cast size for you before things get out of hand.
30 or more ‘important’ characters (major and secondary).
Can be used to tell several stories all in the same setting. If you’ve crafted a brilliant world and want to make it last, you can by telling the story from multiple perspectives.
With so many characters, readers will get attached to at least one of them or a specific faction. Think Harry Potter where fans align themselves with each house (Gryffindor, Slytherin) to this day.
Hard to Become Boring
With so many perspectives, you don’t run as much risk of boring your readers by leaving them with the same characters for hundreds of pages.
You Must Have Subplots
You can only really handle so many characters if you’re bouncing between multiple subplots. If you shove a million characters into just one plot, it will confuse readers.
Thus, you run all the risks associated with having multiple plots (they must have a purpose to the story as a whole, all tie together in the end, etc.).
Hard To Follow
I avoid stories with huge casts simply because I have trouble keeping up with so many characters.
Why? Because it’s easy for Authors to make characters seem important when they’re really not. I wonder whether I’ll need to remember one character or not, if they’ll be back later, if I should’ve paid more attention to them, and so on.
You can avoid this by making clear who is and isn’t important, but it’s a difficult balancing act.
Similar to the last point, dialogue between several characters is hard to follow in a novel. You can have many characters, but try to avoid having more than 3 or 4 talking at once.
Dialogue tags can fix this issue, but having a million of them will kill your pacing and make your text feel bloated.
Loss of Tension
Because you don’t have a lot of space for each character, you have to tell everything about them once they appear.
You can and should slowly develop the major characters, but everyone else will need to have a distinct personality/backstory right off the bat if you want readers to remember them from the fifty other characters.
Thus, you lose a lot of the tension associated with slowly learning a character’s backstory.
10 or fewer important characters.
Easiest for Readers to Follow
This shouldn’t be surprising, but the less characters you have, the easier it is for readers to keep up with each one.
Strong Character Development
By not having a ton of characters to sort-of develop, you have room to thoroughly develop each of your few characters. Just don’t give everything about them away after their initial appearance.
Hold back information and let them develop as the story progresses, bit by bit. Most readers will stop caring about them once they learn everything about them.
Once you’ve established your characters’ personalities and some of their past, it’s easy to write about them. Both you and your readers know what to expect in each scene because it’s guaranteed to have at least one character they know.
Never will a reader be stressed about having to remember a whole new faction upon reaching chapter 17.
Well-developed characters are loveable. And loveable characters make for good merchandise. When you have but ten characters, it’s easy for fans to recognize their favorite on a keychain.
Easy to Become Boring
Unless every character is loveable enough to keep reading about, readers can get bored.
Just as you probably don’t care to spend seven days with the same friend, so do readers prefer to hang out with others after a time.
You can avoid this by crafting great characters, but no one ever said that was easy…
Won’t Last Long
This ties into the first con. 10 volumes with 30 characters is easy. 10 volumes with the same 5 though? Like anything, it can work, but it won’t be easy.
Keeping readers interested in the lives of the same few characters over a long time can be difficult unless every element (story, characters, world) of your LN is well-realized.
Few characters means few personalities. This can translate to a reader being unable to attach to any one of your characters. And if they can’t, they’re not likely to stick around.
10-30 important characters.
I saved this for last because it should now be simple to see why the in-between option is easiest for beginning Authors after learning the drawbacks of the other two.
This size is also the most common for LN series.
To avoid redundancy, I will say that all the pros and cons of both a Large and Small cast also kind-of apply to a Medium one.
Like the Large, your series can last a long time. But you can also make it however long you want it to be. A Large cast demands a long story to fully realize each subplot, but a Medium cast won’t necessarily be bound by that rule.
Your characters won’t appeal to every reader ever, but you have a better chance compared to a Small cast.
As long as the overarching story and subplots are engaging, you won’t have to worry about boring your readers. You might lose those with short attention spans who want a different perspective every chapter, but they are in the minority (I hope…).
Strong, Consistent, Merchandisable Characters
If you balance your story properly, then you can easily make each important character shine. A Large cast results in shallow characters, while a Small cast is hard to keep interesting. But a Medium one can be the best of both worlds.
Easy for Readers to Follow
Not as easy as a Small cast, but a Medium cast isn’t asking too much more from readers.
Easy for Authors to Handle
You might think a Small cast would be easiest, but only if each of your characters is hyper-developed. With a Medium cast, you don’t have to make your characters as strong in order to engage your readers. You should, but you’ll have a lot more room to do so over the course of your series.
But no matter your chosen cast size, you’ll need to know how to deal with them.
How Do You Balance All Your Light Novel Characters?
A common problem in Harems stems having too many girls.
What? Too many? In a Harem? Isn’t that the point?
Indeed, but Harems are only good because each harem member is well-developed and loveable.
When you have too many girls, the majority are often left underdeveloped. Readers will find them either pointless or neglected. Are you not upset when your waifu hasn’t shown up in three volumes?
And if she does reappear several volumes later, it can be rather jarring, assuming readers remember her at all.
As you might’ve guessed, this problem applies to any cast of any size. In order to make your characters matter to readers, you must balance them properly.
Thus, the typical solution to the Harem issue is to have 5 core harem members. That’s 6 major characters including the protagonist. Add 5-10 secondary characters (male friends/additional harem members) and any number of minor characters (needed to facilitate the story) and you’ll have a manageable cast of characters.
Readers will be confident the protagonist will wind up choosing one of the five, but can also enjoy the secondary members when they do appear.
And you’ll find that logic extends to every genre and any cast size. For example:
A Small cast Fantasy: Your hero’s party consists of a Hero (Knight), Tank, Archer, Wizard, Healer, and Rogue.
A Large cast Sci-Fi Opera: Each of the three warring factions contains 6 key members and 5-10 secondary ones.
All that to say: the key to good character balance is establishing who is important (major), who isn’t as (secondary), and who isn’t except once (minor).
Keeping your major character count low allows each to have enough screen-time as to not feel underdeveloped.
Conversely, if they aren’t as important, you need to be careful not to give them too much screen-time lest readers start thinking they’re major characters.
If they do and you don’t bring them back until later, readers will likely be irritated for two reasons. One, they dedicated a lot of brain space to remembering someone they didn’t have to. And two, you might be robbing them of their waifu/husbando.
You Should Have As Many Characters As You
Need Can Handle
Again, to answer the question you’ve been asking through the entire article: you should have as many characters as you need. Unfortunately, what you need might not match up with how many you can handle.
When I first started writing, I stuck to short stories with less than 10 characters overall. This equaled 1-3 major, 2 or 3 secondary, and however many minor. And 10 was all I cared to handle.
I stick to the Medium cast size now for my LN series. It’s both expected from the LN medium and relatively easy to handle. I have yet to try a Large cast story simply because I don’t enjoy them and they intimidate me.
I’d much rather send out 10 Christmas cards instead of 100. Maintaining so many relationships is daunting in reality, so I don’t dare try it in fiction.
Not yet anyway. Perhaps once I’m more confident in my abilities, I’ll try a Large cast out. Because that’s what I’ll be able to handle.
My story might need a Large cast, but because I know can’t handle one, I’ll opt for a Medium one. You can always readjust your story and world to fit your cast.
I won’t tell you that you need to ‘get good’ before employing 100 characters. Many successful Authors’ first works featured large casts. They knew they could handle that many. If you know you can, then by all means—get writing.
But, as with anything, don’t bite off more than you can chew. The trick to making your LN shine is not to have some ‘magic number’ of characters, but how many you can handle and as many as you need to make your story work.