January 15, 2008
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I previously talked about the “rule of three.” Today’s post comes from a somewhat unusual source: ESPN’s Sports Guy. I read his columns a fair amount, because he’s an entertaining writer and offers a great mix of sports knowledge (historical and current) and pop culture.
Anyway, in a recent column about football studio shows, he brings up this theory about “the power of four”:
Unless you’re putting together a poker night or a group to play pickup hoops, in nearly every other conceivable scenario, you’re better off with four people than five or more. Dinner always works better. Vegas works better. Cabs work better. Sporting events work better. Road trips work better. Local newscasts and morning shows work better. Rock bands work better. The most successful sitcom ever (“Seinfeld”) centered around four friends, and the most popular female comedy series (“Sex and the City”) did the same. If you keep the number at four, you’ll always have enough people to make it interesting and everybody has a chance to shine.
Apart from the fact that I personally agree with him (especially about the dinner thing), this is an interesting concept to keep in mind when writing your scenes. Most of us tend to write scenes between two characters, sometimes branching out to three. I think you could reasonably go to four without confusing the reader. Beyond that, though, it gets difficult.
Depending on the length and genre of your work, four is probably the limit of major characters the reader can really care about, too. It’s like he says: keep it interesting, and everyone has a chance to shine. If you’re doing a big epic adventure fantasy where character development isn’t so much an issue, then you can have a Fellowship of nine plus a bunch of supporting cast. But in Katharine Noel’s Halfway House, for example, we have the protagonist, but her father and mother also have strong character arcs in the story. Her brother works as a secondary character, but doesn’t get a lot of the focus. “Common and Precious” has two main characters and two major secondary characters, and that’s about enough for that book as well (I did write a dialogue scene with four characters that was challenging, but a lot of fun to carry off).