Cramming in Characters: Overloads & Overwhelms Readers

by | Writing | 4 comments

image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images

image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images

A common first-chapter problem is introducing too many characters in the first scene. This can also be a problem for later scenes.

The Problem

  • image by OpenClipart-Vectors

    image by OpenClipart-Vectors

    Readers feel as if they’ve entered a gala with names thrown at them.
  • People can keep track of around three characters at a time.
  • Readers become confused and forget the many characters’ relationships to the protagonist.
  • Authors are less likely to round out people when too many are introduced at once.


  • Introduce necessary characters; don’t simply name them.
  • Use names that sound different from names of other people.
  • Determine which characters are crucial. If they don’t have a short or long-term purpose, eliminate them.
  • image by geralt

    image by geralt

    Consider whether two or more characters can be combined into one character.
  • Decide which critical characters can be introduced later. This removes first-chapter overload and starts the story faster.


  • Space introductions of essential characters throughout the scene and give each a memorable feature, action, or dialogue.
  • Allow only characters in the first chapter who have purposes that support the setup and keep the focus on the protagonist.
  • Consider this in a scene: At a party, we wouldn’t receive the full background of the twenty people we meet.
  • Introduce two or three new vital characters in scenes subsequent to the first—after readers have had a chance to grasp the story setup. Then, each character can have his own cameo through action, dialogue, and the protagonist’s point of view.

An Example

At Mom’s wake, Millie’s brother, Don, introduced his college roommate, Mark. Before Millie had a chance to say more than hello, Sally and Vera, her mother’s closest friends approached and threw their arms around her. Extricating herself from Mom’s chums, Millie caught a glance of Ron over by the shrimp platter. She needed to speak to him. Of course, Mom’s cousin Emma, had to come. Emily, her daughter, followed her everywhere.

image by Unsplash

image by Unsplash

An Evaluation:

  • Mark never enters the story again or has any purpose.
  • Don and Ron and Emma and Emily are essential, but their names are too similar. Possibly Emma and Emily could be detained and arrive the following day.
  • Although we’re given how each person is related to Millie, we’re given nothing memorable to keep these 8 people straight.
  • Mom’s chums could possibly be combined into one friend.

Better Rewrite:

Millie’s chest caved. Couldn’t Don have honored their mother and come to her wake sober? Millie turned her sisterly glare into a smile as Mom’s closest friend Vera approached with outstretched arms. Vera’s arm flab flapped as she waddled closer. Extricating herself from Vera’s bear hug, Millie caught sight of handsome Erik half hidden by the oriental screen. Was Erik avoiding their needed conversation?

Best Rewrite: Now have moments spaced throughout the scene in which these 4 characters hint at or show their long- and short-term purposes to the chapter and story.

Be deliberate in introducing many characters so readers aren’t overwhelmed or confused. Click to tweet.

What other suggestions do you have for introducing characters?

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  1. Anne Garboczi Evans

    Great tips! I like introducing more minor characters just with a description, the greasy man, the red-haired woman etc. The description makes it easy to keep track of them if they aren’t really important enough to warrant a full name and background.

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Anne, as a reader, I would be comfortable with your descriptions for minor characters that have only a momentary purpose. If you named them, I might expect to see them again later. :0)

  2. Jane Foard Thompson

    Good thoughts. I agree. I try to save names for characters that matter in terms of plot or theme, especially in the first chapter.
    Funny, when I began writing my pre-Colombian novel I added a brother to help my protagonist escape in the first chapter, then killed him off in a storm in their next scene. My critique group revolted, saying he was so likable that I had to leave him in. He ended up being a key secondary character throughout the story.

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      That’s the great part about being in control of our story, Jane. We can decide if a character can have further purpose that will move the story and support the main character’s story. I let go of a best friend in my current story when she didn’t add much and the hero could do her one job for the heroine’s growth. Thanks for adding this dimension to the discussion.

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