How many characters do you include in your story? Are they friends or enemies of the hero? Do they pop into your head, demanding to be heard? Should you listen?
It all seems like a hit and miss affair, but not if you understand that a character’s function is to argue for or against the theme of the tale.
Here’s what I mean:
Lady Macbeth, for example, sees her husband as deserving of the throne. Claiming it through violence is acceptable to her. The three witches, too, see Macbeth’s ascent as inevitable. From the point of view of such characters the theme might be: Unbridled ambition leads to action that procures the throne.
Banquo and Macduff on the other hand offer a different perspective. Their angle on the theme might be: Usurping the throne through the murder of the rightful king leads to guilt, chaos and death. Macbeth himself, vacillates between perspectives, now recognising that murder is wrong, now seeing his ascent as a kind of birth right, until the final conflict, which finally proves the theme. Shakespeare explores the essence of his story by juxtaposing different opinions from a moral or pragmatic perspective.
“The characters’ primary function at the level of structure is to offer different perspectives on the theme of the story.”
Characters earn their place in the story by offering different takes on the theme, until the final battle ‘proves’ one side right over another. Determining how many characters you need to stage this debate, then, will tell you how many characters you need to include in your story.
Include as many characters as are necessary to fully explore the different perspectives of the theme. Do they support or oppose the hero?