Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Writing an ensemble cast is harder than writing a single protagonist for the same reason that catching five cats is harder than catching one: you’re trying to do the same difficult thing multiple times, and the fact that you’ve already succeeded once doesn’t necessarily make the next step any easier – in fact, it could even make it harder.
And yet, for all that effort, you can expect a larger reward. That’s why, in this two-part article, I’ll be looking at how and why you should write an ensemble cast. In this, part 1, I’ll be exploring the benefits of an ensemble, as well as laying the groundwork for part 2, in which I’ll talk more about the technical decisions that help writers create an interesting ensemble cast (rather than a great protagonist surrounded by a bunch of hangers-on).
As ever, we’ll begin by making sure everyone’s clear on the terminology.
What is an ensemble cast?
An ensemble cast is a group of characters in which the major characters are of roughly equal levels of importance, generally typified by having no single, specific protagonist. In literature, the strictures of this definition can be strained against – you can have an ensemble cast where one character is a smidge more important, but where others receive almost as much attention and development – but the general intent is that the story is ‘about’ multiple characters rather than an individual.A true ensemble cast doesn’t have any one protagonist.Click To Tweet
Writing an ensemble cast is difficult because it involves deliberately splitting a reader’s attention in a way they still find enjoyable. For example, if you had an idea for a spy in a fantasy setting, it’s not enough to drag in her brother and her accountant and call it an ensemble – one of those characters is more interesting, and if the reader spends all their time with everyone else wishing they could get back to that other character, you’ve written a failed ensemble.
In the above example, however, you probably didn’t want an ensemble cast; unless you have a specific reason to bring in an ensemble, it sounds like you’ve got a great idea for a story that focuses squarely on one protagonist (although depending on your taste, you may think I mean the spy or the accountant).
So when should you consider writing an ensemble? Well, when your story will particularly benefit from one of the factors below…
One of the best arguments for writing an ensemble cast is to tell a larger story. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series describes events that affect not just multiple groups of characters but whole kingdoms. They’re ‘about’ a particular struggle, and that struggle is best illustrated through a cornucopia of characters, each of whom is best equipped to shed light on a specific area.
By embracing an ensemble cast, Martin leaves himself free to move around his world, expanding the scope of his story. To do the same thing with a single protagonist, he’d have to either sacrifice certain information, occasionally dump them to flit away (a tactic that leaves the reader in no doubt that they’re being led around by a very present author), or contrive for a protagonist to keep being shipped around the world, overhearing vital information at every step.
The scope of Martin’s story is best conveyed through an ensemble, and so that’s what he chooses to write. It’s not the case, however, that only expansive stories benefit from an ensemble cast.
While larger stories derive scope from an ensemble cast, smaller stories can give themselves depth. William Goldman’s The Princess Bride uses an ensemble cast to explore what’s otherwise a pretty basic fairy tale plot: true love is spoiled by an evil prince who kidnaps the female protagonist, and the male protagonist sets off in pursuit.
The ensemble starts off early by introducing a framing device in which a fictional version of the author talks about the story proper, but the reader is most aware of it when a trio of goons show up to kidnap the apparent protagonist, Buttercup. Goldman renders these goons lovingly, even including flashbacks to their earlier lives, and folds them into the cast, giving each a clear goal that the reader wants to see fulfilled, and perhaps even making them more interesting than the protagonists the reader has already encountered (though the latter drive the plot more, so it comes out pretty equal).Ensemble casts can make big stories bigger and small stories deeper.Click To Tweet
By doing so, Goldman turns a basic story of rescue and adventure into an ensemble masterpiece – the reader cares about multiple characters at any given moment, often in different ways. The reader doesn’t just want the protagonists to win, they want them all to get different things, and they approach each scene in terms of the myriad rewards and threats implied for each member of the ensemble. Yes, the reader wants Westley to escape the castle as quickly as possible, but they’d also really, really like Inigo to have the chance to confront and kill the six-fingered man, even if it has to cost him his life (or maybe not, as that would surely break Fezzik’s heart).
By bringing an ensemble cast to such a simple plot, Goldman finds a way of looking at events from multiple angles, creating the ideal mix of simple but deep storytelling. That’s not to say, of course, that an ensemble cast doesn’t suit a genuinely complex story.
Some stories cry out for an ensemble cast by their very nature. Murder mysteries, for example, thrive on an ensemble cast. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None more or less needs an ensemble, since rendering multiple characters as equally complex and important means that any one of them could be the murderer.
In other books, Christie uses detective protagonists, but that’s a device that tends to lend a spirit of order to a story; the reader rides the shoulder of the person here to set things right. And Then There Were None is a little darker, and its air of uncertainty is supported by an ensemble cast.
And Then There Were None is such an interesting example because the story is altered in many adaptations (following the example of Christie’s stage play) to allow for a happier ending. This necessitates changing two characters to be less morally dubious and, as a result, often also means they become the actual protagonists of the story. Studying a few different adaptations alongside the original is a masterclass on what the characters are doing for the story.
For all its quality, however, And Then There Were None is a standalone classic of the genre. How can the ensemble help if you’re still shaping your story or even planning a sequel?
The flipside of the variety offered by ensembles – the ability to do lots of things with lots of people – is the lack of pressure that puts on any single character. Individuals can still be interesting, well-rounded, and important to the plot, but they also don’t have to carry that plot or be the single source of information and solutions within it.
In fewer pieces of fiction is this more apparent than Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. Kirkman’s series began in 2003 and is still going strong, partly because his huge ensemble cast is constantly changing, evolving, and dying.
In a post-zombie-apocalypse American, Kirkman asks what values survive when life is once again a daily struggle. It turns out that the answer varies depending on who you are: a science teacher has a lot to add to a group trying to put down roots, as does a cop with the latent potential for leadership, a farmer who knows what grows where, and an ordinary guy who knows the nearby city like the back of his hand.An ensemble cast gives you much more freedom to throw obstacles at your characters.Click To Tweet
In writing such a vibrant and interesting cast, Kirkman shares out the plot-relevant duties. It means no-one’s ever unbelievably well-informed or capable and, consequently, convinces the reader that Kirkman might kill off anyone at a moment’s notice.
Similarly, Kirkman has room to breathe; characters can lie or mess up long term. With a smaller cast, deceit is difficult because so much is riding on them that the plot pushes the author to reveal the truth or else make it the basis of their character. One of Kirkman’s characters lies about having government contacts for a long stretch of the story, thinking it will motivate the others to protect him, and the lie is allowed to emerge naturally over time. After all, the reader was only spending so much time with that character, so it was entirely possible to be economical with his backstory.
This is one of the main benefits of an ensemble cast – you’re far freer to explore ideas that would otherwise fall over each other. Things can happen concurrently in a way single protagonists can’t quite manage, and characters the reader truly cares for can make genuine, lasting mistakes. When a protagonist messes up, the results generally need to be dealt with quickly, as they have to go on and do other things. An ensemble cast allows you to have a character marinate in their errors and even to truly ruin their lives without dedicating your whole story to that process. When Kirkman kills a character, the reader feels it, and so do their friends, but there are other members of the ensemble who didn’t really know them and can carry the action or humor while the rest of the cast is grieving.
The cumulative effect is the potential for flexible stories and realistic characterisation. If your single, central protagonist loses their wife, you probably either need to skip ahead a little or else paint a less than realistic portrait of immediate grief, but Kirkman’s characters are free to suffer, and that makes them feel far realer. This variety of characterization is another great benefit of the ensemble cast.
An ensemble cast means each character carries less of the burden of plot: that is, there’s much less of what they ‘must’ do and far more of what they ‘can’ do. In this way, writing an ensemble cast can lessen the focus on one person in order to enhance the characterization of five.
Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, for example, doesn’t just have an ensemble cast, it has ensemble casts: ‘Them’, a gang of children that includes the Anti-Christ, the witchfinder army and Anathema Device, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and Aziraphale and Crowley (an angel and demon who have known each other so long that they’re basically workmates).
It’s a story in which the characters who motivate the plot don’t know there’s a plot to motivate and the characters who know what’s going on can’t intercede. Each character is enjoyable to spend time with and especially to see interact with the others.
The variety of an ensemble gives Gaiman and Pratchett the ability to only focus on certain characters when they have something to add, refining their characterization to those moments the reader will enjoy and learn from the most, and populating an entire book with such moments for different characters. Sometimes (though only sometimes) what an interesting character needs to really shine is to be split in two, the better to tighten in on their best features.
With a few exceptions, the 007 books tend to be pretty dire, and this is part of their problem – when your book is about the most capable man in the world doing everything by himself, it’s difficult to make him interesting. After all, he’s pretty busy, and if you want him to struggle or fail or doubt (the types of moment that will make a reader root for him), the book has to be about that struggle until it’s resolved. Yes, Bond bounces off secondary characters, but they tend to either fall by the wayside as the plot gets going or else act as pit stops along the way.
It doesn’t take much to imagine Bond as a two-person team who can share out his materialism, patriotism, duty, etc. and express those motivations with a little more depth and freedom. It might create a less absolute picture of the take-no-nonsense protagonist, but it would also create a character who’s known as much for his personality as his deeds – something a little more at home in the modern literary marketplace.
Finally, the ensemble means that you’re able to offer a wider variety of characters to a wider variety of reader. Good Omens fans frequently argue about their favorite characters, since there are so many to choose from, but if James Bond isn’t your type of guy, you’re probably not going to get much from a Bond book.
The benefits of an ensemble cast
So those are some of the major benefits of the ensemble cast. Remember, by the way, that they’re not mutually exclusive – murder mysteries benefit from an ensemble cast partly because of the increased opportunities for characterization, and a large cast doesn’t just increase the scope of an epic event, it can also make it feel real. Alan Moore’s Watchmen, for example, spends time building up an ensemble cast partly so a disaster late in the story will feel both vast and personal when it wipes them all out.
An ensemble cast doesn’t suit every story – a deep character study can get sufficient use out of secondary characters to make a tight, single-character focused work, and some plots are so streamlined that the reader doesn’t want to split their attention – but it’s a device that many authors don’t consider, even though it could be exactly what their story needs.
So that’s the case for writing an ensemble cast. In How (And Why) You Should Write An Ensemble Cast – Part 2 I’ll talk about the logistics of doing so, and you can check out How Many Characters Should A Novel Have? and How To Avoid Writing A Mary Sue Protagonist for more great advice on this topic.