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Are Novels Better With Large Casts or Small Casts?

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For a book with "Solitude" in its title, it sure has lots of characters!

After recently reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, I've been thinking about whether novels are better with large casts or small casts. There are positives for both levels of character population.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez's masterpiece offers superb writing, profound thoughts, sociopolitical commentary, magical realism, joy, heartbreak, and colorful characters. These fictional people may live in just one mythical place, but they are so varied -- and there are so many of them -- that Marquez gives us a panoramic view of humankind.

Yet the sheer number of Solitude characters -- as well as their archetypal two-dimensionality and confusingly similar names -- makes it hard to care a lot about their individual fates. None of them appear in enough pages for that, though family matriarch Ursula comes close. But, even if few of the characters tug firmly on our emotions, Solitude packs an emotional wallop as a book.

There are of course countless other novels with many characters. Two very popular examples are the Harry Potter series and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The fact that those fictional works have multiple volumes makes it easier for readers to gradually get to know multiple cast members. It also helps that those books have a relatively small number of principal players, with the other characters in secondary roles. J.K. Rowling's "stars" include Harry himself, Hermione, Ron, Voldemort, Dumbledore, and Snape; and J.R.R. Tolkien's are Frodo, Sam, Gollum, and Gandalf. (Perhaps a few other Rings and Potter characters also merit a "major" designation.)

Then there are the novels that toggle between several main characters -- giving each protagonist almost equal time, and giving readers the satisfaction of navigating narrative complexity until a worth-the-effort conclusion in which the characters often intersect in some way. Among the books with alternating protagonists are Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver and The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood.

Donald Westlake juggles an even greater number of significant characters in Humans, a novel I'm currently reading that has the premise of an angel visiting Earth to assemble a bunch of people to help bring about the end of the world. Well, we all need a task in life...

The Westlake, Atwood, and Kingsolver books are terrific, but it can be frustrating to get very interested in a character and then -- boom -- she or he disappears for several chapters. Soon, you get immersed in another character, and the vanishing cycle repeats itself.

Other great novels -- such as Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence -- focus like a laser on a small number of principal characters. You might miss the sweep of a book that ambitiously features a cast of dozens, but it's easier to get emotionally invested in just one or two fictional people per novel. Plus, if the author is skillful enough, a small number of characters can still tell you plenty about love, hate, life, death, and all those other important things.

What are you favorite novels with lots of characters, and your favorite novels with not many characters? Also, do you have a preference for large or small casts?

Dave Astor's new book Comic (and Column) Confessional is scheduled to be published next month by Xenos Press.

The part-humorous memoir is about Dave's 25 years at Editor & Publisher magazine covering, interviewing, and meeting notables such as Arianna Huffington, Heloise, Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King, Martha Stewart, Ann Landers, and Abigail Van Buren ("Dear Abby"); and notable cartoonists such as Gary Larson ("The Far Side"), Lynn Johnston ("For Better or For Worse"), Mort Walker ("Beetle Bailey"), Charles Schulz ("Peanuts"), Stan Lee ("Spider-Man"), Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Garry Trudeau ("Doonesbury"), Berkeley Breathed ("Bloom County"), Scott Adams ("Dilbert"), Jim Davis ("Garfield"), Milton Caniff ("Terry and the Pirates"/"Steve Canyon"), and Herblock. The book also chronicles changes in the media, discusses personal stuff, and more.

If you'd like information about ordering a signed copy of the book, contact Dave at dastor@earthlink.net