The Dangers of Character Glut

How tolerant are you of character glut?

There is a hard-to-pin number out there of what constitutes too many characters in a book, movie, or show. Watching the trailer for the new Captain America: Civil War movie reminds me of how unsatisfying most of these films are when they are trying to service decades-old comic book series by having as many character drop-ins as possible. With a run time of 146 minutes, I worry that this film will have too many characters who will become mere window dressing and be given a few snappy lines to make them memorable for their eventual spinoff film.

civil war

Maybe I’m just grumpy and it’s an age thing. I had no problem with Tolkein’s many characters when reading Lord of the Rings in junior high. But even back then The Silmarillion was too much for me. Maybe it was Middle Earth fatigue, I don’t know. I also loved Niven and Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer with its two-page list of characters, but I managed to keep them straight at the time and have re-read this maybe more often than any other science fiction novel.


Particularly notorious in my mind is George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones novel. I gave up twice trying to get past the wall of names before a successful third reading. Every knight has a squire, some of these men have cousins, and Mr. Martin gives them all names. This type of embroidered lineage must please his readers. I want to nudge the author and say “get on with it.” It’s almost as if writing like this dares you to actually enjoy the story. Roger Ebert made a comment like this in his movie review of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. Newton wrote his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in such a manner that only a handful of people would actually understand it. This was done on purpose to keep away the riff-raff.

game of thrones

I’ve never minded burning the necessary mental calories in processing a book. I read plenty of history and don’t have issues with multiple names, titles, and relations when they’re relevant. But watch X-Men 3 / Last Stand (the one with the truncated Dark Phoenix Saga and the memorable line “I’m the Juggernaut, Bitch.”) and tell me it was well served by adding Angel, Rogue, Iceman and some others I’m forgetting and giving these characters little to do and no development.

Having many characters in of itself is not a deal breaker. Most books with multiple characters have lulls in them where I might face a moment of “Okay, who is this woman/man/dwarf again?” But a good book, movie, or show will make me care to stick it out and stay alert to get to know who’s who. This is essential for me to make it to the end without regrets.

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