Anton Chekhov | How Many Characters Should A Story Have?

by Marylee MacDonald in Characters, For Readers

Anton Chekhov’s vivid characters live in our imaginations to this day. One of my favorites is “Lady With the Pet Dog,” also translated as “Lady With the Little Dog.”

If you’ve never read his stories, or haven’t read them in a long time, here’s a site with audio recordings of them.

Sit with the characters, as a good doctor sits at a patient’s bedside and listens. (Well, in the old days.) A doctor in Chekhov’s time would take notes, observe the characters’ psychological states, and record their histories. A doctor would be empathetic and open to surprises.

Anton Chekhov: Physician and Writer

Anton Chekhov–doctor, playwright, and short-story author–had a dual career, and each informed the other. Readers are lucky to have his stories, and writers are fortunate to be able to consult his letters and writing journals.

Chekhov understood “what makes people tick.” His stories are full of moments when a character acts or speaks in a way we didn’t foresee, but which feels totally real. That’s because Chekhov understood people and made them memorable.

fictional characters Chekhov's Study, Melikhovo.JPG

Image from Wikimedia Commons This is Chekhov’s study in Melikhovo, his country estate. Chekhov wrote 44 works in his country dacha. Then, tuberculosis forced him to move to Yalta, where he built another villa. He lived there, writing plays, until his death.

What gave Chekhov his great powers of observation? As a doctor he treated rich and poor alike. He saw life and death in all its manifestations. The dead laid out in parlors. Frozen horses. Women marooned far from the center of society. Prisoners and the prostitutes.

Chekhov had compassion for humanity’s fragility and foibles. He understood boredom and humdrum lives and self-destructive behavior. But, none of that would have mattered to his literary legacy if he had not also understood that, to create literature out of the messiness of life, the writer had to impose controls on her or his imagination.

If you’d like more on character development, download CREATING MEMORABLE CHARACTERS.

How Many Characters Does A Story Need?

Beginning writers often let their imaginations run wild. Stories hop from present to past, and dip in and out of people’s heads. The reader can’t keep track of all the names.

Is it necessary to have a cast of thousands? Chekhov didn’t think so.

When you fashion a story you necessarily concern yourself with its limits: out of slew of main and secondary characters you choose only one — the wife or the husband — place him against the background and describe him alone and therefore also emphasize him, while you scatter the others in the background like small change, and you get something like the night sky: a single large moon and a slew of very small stars.

— To Alexei Suvorin, October 27, 1888

I love this quote, and it’s certainly true that, for a playwright and short story author, one or two characters will suffice.

The tapestry of the novel is much larger, as Chekhov’s contemporary, Leo Tolstoy, certainly knew. However, I still think it’s a good idea to keep Chekhov’s admonition in mind. When working on a first novel, writers shouldn’t attempt War and Peace.

Stick to Chekhov’s advice and limit your cast. (If you’re curious about where Chekhov lived and wrote, read this article in The New York Times.)

Action Reveals Character

After the author has chosen the main character–two, at most–the writer’s next task is to make it safe for the main character to reveal his secrets.

In fiction a character’s psychology is not revealed by endlessly mulling things over. Sorry, Hamlet.

Thinking too much is a character flaw, not a heroic attribute. Fortunately, Chekhov generously shared his thoughts about that, too.

He believed action was the best way to reveal a character’s deepest motivations. The reason the character acts the way she does becomes clear, not by watching her sort through her options, but by catching her thrown off balance and in a moment when she’s forced to act.

In the realm of psychology you also need details. God preserve you from commonplaces. Best of all, shun all descriptions of the characters’ spiritual state. You must try to have that state emerge clearly from their actions. Don’t try for too many characters. The center of gravity should reside in two: he and she. — To AP Chekhov, May 10, 1886

By “spiritual state” Chekhov did not mean the character’s religious leanings. He meant a character “tormented” by circumstance. In a predicament. Forced to make a choice.

Chekhov wrote that the writer must dramatize the choices life forces upon us. To dramatize action means to show the action in scene. You can learn more about scene and summary right here.

But, in the early stages, how does the writer know which direction characters will turn or what actions they will take? You can’t, even if you’re rigorously plotted out the action in your book. So, what’s a writer to do?

You can either get to know your characters as you write, or you can do prewriting exercises to get a firm grip on who your imaginary people are. As you lean forward into your novel, you will place obstacles in your characters’ paths. You will show them standing at crossroads, not just once, but over and over.

The Broad Outlines of Your Characters’ Lives

A short story doesn’t allow much wiggle room. Two scenes, maybe three, and then the story’s over.

But you still need a general picture of your characters. Age. Height. Weight.  Why the ex left. Where they went to college. Their favorite team and how much their jobs suck. You, the observer, might have a sense of whether they’re casual or uptight. Whether they wear jeans or suits, halter tops or spangly sweaters.

This superficial knowledge will be recorded in the character description you create in the prewriting stage. (Here’s a character checklist to help you get started.)

Whether you’re writing stories or novels, in the prewriting stage you’re only able to make rough guesses.

  • You haven’t tested your characters by forcing them to deal with events that are out of their control.
  • You haven’t presented them with hard choices.
  • You haven’t listened as they’ve concocted their own revisionist histories.

All these discoveries lie in your future. And theirs.

In next week’s post I’ll give you five pre-writing exercises to unlock your character’s secrets. And, in the meantime, here’s an additional post on characters and how to make them real.

11 Responses to “Anton Chekhov | How Many Characters Should A Story Have?”

  1. Great post! Well written and on point. Characterization is the life-blood of any story. Love this!

  2. Thank you for another fascinating and helpful post. I too love Chekhov’s stories and especially The Lady with the Little Dog. Did you know there is a superb Soviet film of it? A classic.

    • I had no idea about that film. Do you know the director or year? I would love to see it.

      • 1960. Also I think called The Lady with the Dog. Director Josef Kheifits (?) Is available on Amazon – but take care you get the US version of the DVD and one with subtitles (unless you speak Russian).

        • Thanks! I would love to see film images of this story. When I was young I thought that Chekhov had invented that story from whole cloth, but the more I’ve read of his letters and working methods, I believe he might have been more of a close observer. I wonder if Russians of a certain class still have the time to take an extended, Black Sea vacation. Today they’re probably all be sitting around with their cell phones, relating to electronic devices instead of having liaisons.

  3. Mary A Clark says:

    I’m mulling this over! Just kidding. I read the “character list” and that’s a good idea for getting started on a new novel.

    • Go, Mary! This afternoon I was reading the Postcards From Purgatory blog about Diana Gabaldon’s last book, Volume 8. The blog is co-written by Jill and Bethany, and the page I’m linking to has a very interesting discussion about how readers react when there are too many characters. It’s quite instructive to read through the comments and see what issues begin to arise as Diana Gabaldon’s original Outlander novel expands its cast of characters. I’m glad you found my checklist useful. You might expand on it to “make it your own,” but, at least, it’s a start.

  4. As a storyteller living in the countryside, one who loves the seclusion and now has online forums to advertise; I figure it this way. I love what I do. If anyone else likes what I do I have conquered one obstacle, I have shared my vision with (someone) out there. I began telling tall stories on paper with a pencil, then my mother picked up an old typewriter from a garage sale, so I spent countless hours learning the keys, making a ton of errors, and wasting a lot of paper. (LOL) My mother said I needed to start using both sides of the paper. I trekked my way to the post office on foot, which by the way was a mile to and from, so I did get some exercise. I never got a bite, and the waiting for a response from publishing houses was grueling, yet did not deter me. I kept writing, typing, editing and even set up an office inside of our big red barn. I felt secluded and comfortable there, but was young and foolish and left my work in the barn, which unfortunately caught fire one night. Everything went up in a blaze of glory. It was one massive barn burning anyone who lived in a fifty-mile radius could see, because it happened around midnight and lit up the entire eastern-northern skies. I set writing aside and moved on in life. Thus I became lost for a time. I dealt with a lot heartache as most do, (relationships/my mother diagnosed with pancreatic cancer/my husband left with another woman) and so I threw myself back into my stories, becoming lost somewhere between what was and what wasn’t. The internet was on the rise. An entire strange new era having a different perspective on life was in the making. Like one of those Sci-Fi Saturday afternoon movies back when TV was in black and white then changed over to color…it was so great! However, you still had to snail-mail manuscripts regardless (the internet was in its infant stage), and it still took forever to get those responses from any PH. Wow has it evolved? We have a flood of authors/writers/storytellers, whatever label you feel comfortable. I’m still a bit shocked at the mass media frenzy out there. BUT if you are a writer, you know there are no easy answers to any of it. So I say to do what you do in the way you do it. It takes a lot of hard work, faith, and a bit of Lady Luck, but any reward, great or small, should fulfill you if you truly are doing what it is you love. I love telling stories. I may not be a great writer in the way we think of great writers, but I am one hell of a storyteller, only without the flair, everything is going to be hunky-dory, because life is if anything, no fairytale. I survived Tuberculosis in the 50s and Polio in the 60s, broke my leg and both wrists. I survived the deaths of those I’ve held dear in my heart, and I am healthy and vigorous at 63. Written three novels. No gore or SEX-licit but some terror to keep you highly engaged. My tales follow along a Hitchcock style storytelling with perhaps a few other varied artists of the pen. In the mix, you may find a sprinkle of King, a dab of Koontz, and a splash of Christie. I love your blog, your insight, and the fact you share your knowledge with the likes of others. Keep up the good work. Happy trails to you until we meet again. VLZ

    • Vicki, Thanks so much for sharing your journey as a writer. Chekhov, out in his country dacha, is smiling as he imagines the tranquility of your country setting, the barn ablaze, and the opportunities you’ve found to launch your books into the world. It’s good to meet a kindred spirit.

      • A kindred spirit… so few between… who come and go… yet leave you so… filled with grace… you feel like you’re… in outer space… Thanks, Marylee

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