The idea that faults rupture in repeated, characteristic earthquakes is central to most probabilistic earthquake forecasts. The concept is elegant in its simplicity, and if the same event has repeated itself multiple times in the past, we might anticipate the next. In practice however, assembling a fault-segmented characteristic earthquake rupture model can grow into a complex task laden with unquantified uncertainty. We weigh the evidence that supports characteristic earthquakes against a potentially simpler model made from extrapolation of a Gutenberg–Richter magnitude-frequency law to individual fault zones. We find that the Gutenberg–Richter model satisfies key data constraints used for earthquake forecasting equally well as a characteristic model. Therefore, judicious use of instrumental and historical earthquake catalogs enables large-earthquake-rate calculations with quantifiable uncertainty that should get at least equal weighting in probabilistic forecasting.