Many years ago, long before I got serious about writing, I came up with what I called “The Seven Character Theory of TV Shows.” It came from my observation of the TV program Gilligan’s Island. What I noticed was that there were seven regular characters on the program and I wondered why.
My explanation was that the number was a compromise between two forces. The lower limit is set by need to provide a variety of possible relationships between characters, since stories are about relationships. If you had too few, the number of stories would be limited. The upper end is set by the number of characters that people can recognize. If you had too many, then it would become harder to differentiate them.
I read someplace that people’s minds have a limit of seven pieces of information that they can actively consider at any one time. Since this fit my observation that there were seven characters on Gilligan’s Island, I concluded that this was the ideal number.
Of course, once I started to look at other TV shows, the theory started to fall apart. While there are many shows that did have seven regular characters, there were many that did not. As a recall Batman had six and Get Smart had four or five. Mostly shows had fewer characters. I tried to rescue the theory by assuming that the shows with fewer regular characters relied on more guest stars, which brought the effective number up to seven. This didn’t even convince me.
I hadn’t thought much about the theory for a long time, but recently I’ve given it some more thought. My original theory is much too rigid. Basing it on Gilligan’s Island may not add much weight either.
However, I do think there is some merit to my idea. There is a need to provide more characters to bring variety to the stories, and there is a limit to the number of characters you can have without confusing the audience.
In the stories I’ve done of late, I have sort of followed this rule. In The Glencoe Project and The Gladstone Barrier I have 8 or 9 characters, although a few of them are minor. For The Crying Woman I only have two. I do have a couple of other characters that interact with the characters, but these are minor. Even so, that only leaves me with four characters.
One of the comments I had about The Glencoe Project and The Gladstone Project was that they were a little too complicated. That may be related to the number of characters in the story. I felt that one of the problems with The Doorman’s Sacrifice was that I had far too many characters.
I guess that in the end, you do need to carefully consider the number of characters when you create a story. If you find that you need too many, that might be an indication of a problem with the story. I am not sure just how many is too many. Maybe it is less than seven.
I also wonder: do you need an odd number, or can you use an even number?