Image: Matthew Loffhagen
In part 1 of this article, I talked about what an ensemble cast involves and the times that writing one might be the best fit for your story. If that convinced you to embrace the ensemble (or if that’s what you wanted to do anyway), welcome to part 2, in which I’ll be talking about the mechanics of writing a great ensemble cast.
Let’s begin, then, by talking about what type of ensemble you’re looking to write.
Types of ensemble cast
When we talk about types of ensemble cast, we’re bringing together the ideas of how big your ensemble should be and how absolute you consider the term. For the sake of ease, this is best expressed through four varieties of ensemble cast:
The fan club ensemble
Some ensembles aren’t true ensembles because there’s still a clear single protagonist motivating the story. In both the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series, the book begins in the company of one character and follows their trials as they address a goal that, once addressed, concludes the series.
It’s hard to argue that these are true ensemble stories, but they’re still close enough for it to be worth talking about them as such. After all, the other characters are too well-rounded, too constantly present, to truly be called secondary characters. When the cast of the Lord of the Rings split up, the story splits with them – it’s definitely not just Frodo’s story, even if he started it, ends it, and does the most important things.
For comparison, consider The War of the Worlds, in which a pretty unimportant protagonist recounts the story. When he needs to tell the reader something he wasn’t there for, he encounters a stranger willing to pass on a message or describe their own experiences. Secondary characters are shuttled in where useful, they even get to take over the narration, in a way, but it’s undeniably the protagonist’s story, even though they’re not much of a character.
In contrast, the Lord of the Rings follows the Fellowship, splitting up when they do. In doing this, it embraces most of the benefits I described in part 1, so in terms of practical application, it’s worth treating this as a type of ensemble cast, even if it doesn’t technically make the grade.
The gang ensemble
This type of ensemble cast treats a small gathering of characters as its protagonists, gathering them together and head-hopping to get more out of the story. This is the ensemble of The Princess Bride – building up a scene while keeping things manageable.
The reader never truly has to remember who’s where or doing what, because the protagonists stick together, except in cases of quickly resolved misadventure. This ensemble is used to get the most out of characterization; each event can be mined for extra relevance without asking too much of the reader.
The diaspora ensemble
This type of ensemble takes a similar number of characters as the gang ensemble but doesn’t treat them as a group. As in Good Omens, these characters are offering the reader different viewpoints on different parts of the world and plot. They may be heading for a collision course (indeed, this is generally the thing that justifies the focus placed on them), but they’re not a single entity. This allows the author to justify moving around the world while still allowing for focused characterization – the reader is seeing different people in different places, but they’re the same different people, and the places are part of a consistent journey.
The vast ensemble
This type of ensemble tends to be less about valuing a large but limited set of characters and more about decentralizing the story and even rejecting the idea of a protagonist. This tends to suit stories where the events and their consequences are the focus, since the author gives themselves carte blanche to go where the action is. This is the ensemble of A Song of Ice and Fire; characters that interest the reader, that they care about, but who can be killed off in a moment because they’re not ‘needed’ in any strict narrative sense. They’re the best way of recounting that particular moment, and a skilled author can make them a great place to visit, but they’re dwarfed by what they’re being used to explore.A vast ensemble cast gives the author free rein to move around their world.Click To Tweet
Vast ensembles are common in fantasy writing (which tends to have epic conflict and large worlds that need to be fleshed out) but also non-fiction. Writers like Jon Ronson have a tendency to tell a larger story by using individual experiences to illustrate general points. In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, for example, Ronson visits multiple people who’ve suffered in the court of public opinion. Their stories are emotional and interesting, but they serve the purpose of exemplifying Ronson’s larger thesis. In fact, this is necessary to the text; the factor that makes it valuable and incisive rather than voyeuristic.
This type of ensemble is the best for scope, and can even create depth, but it does few extra favors in terms of characterization (it’s still possible, of course, it just doesn’t get the same boost as with closer-knit ensembles).
Writing a great ensemble
The ensemble that’s right for your story is defined by the aspects of your narrative that you want to emphasize, but the tighter you keep them together, the more opportunities for characterization, and the more you disperse them, the greater the opportunities for communicating scope. Happily, depth remains relatively constant, so long as the ensemble are developed as individuals.
So that’s what you need to know to decide the type of ensemble that will suit your story, but how do you write them? Well…
Goals and conflict
Conflict is what makes stories run, so for a character to really matter to a story, they have to be bringing some of that conflict. In terms of character, conflict tends to emerge from someone having a goal and trying to meet it.
For a character to truly be part of an ensemble, rather than just a supporting character, they need to have their own goal. Any character who doesn’t want something (and isn’t trying to get it) just isn’t doing enough to be part of an ensemble.If you’re writing an ensemble cast, every character needs a goal.Click To Tweet
Not only that, but it’s unrealistic; we’re all the heroes of our own stories, and we all have goals and desires. When characters don’t possess those qualities, it’s more like the author is stripping them of those motivations rather than just forgetting to add them – it’s something you do to a character to place them in the background; the opposite of putting them in an ensemble.
Different means different
For characters to justify their place in an ensemble, they need to be adding something new – a unique perspective that lends them a specific value in the context of the story.
This might mean they’re off in their own corner, adding something other characters don’t, or it may mean their presence allows you to explore other characters in new ways. Maybe they’re the funny one of the group, or the stoic, and they’re not just their own character but a way to provoke deeper characterisation and conflict.
Often, writing an ensemble means deliberately setting up relationships that allow you to render each character in more detail. It’s something we covered in depth in This Is The Blueprint For A Perfect Cast Of Characters, so I won’t overexplain it here, but suffice to say that certain character types are great for opening up lots of different potential interactions.
The good, the bad, and the ugly
When trying to make every member of an ensemble work as a fleshed-out character, remember that they’ll need their fair share of virtues and flaws. Introducing a character who’s a computer expert or a bruiser isn’t quite enough – those skills make them useful, but generally useful to the actual protagonist. Again, Bond is surrounded by such characters, and no-one’s mistaking them for co-leads.
If a character’s in the ensemble, the story is at least partly about them. That’s why they need a goal, that’s why they need to be unique in your roster of character, and that’s why they need their own virtues and their own flaws.When fleshing out a character, pay as much attention to their flaws as their virtues.Click To Tweet
Ensemble stories focus on events that no single character can resolve. That means that the members of your ensemble need to contribute to events in a real, idiosyncratic way. Make sure they have an impact on the story, both through what they do right and what they do wrong. If you look over the plot and that’s not the case, shuffle around the duties so every member of the ensemble steers the story at some point.
Don’t be afraid to break up the group
It can be tempting to keep a good ensemble cast together, but they’ll grow more if you split them up, even if only for a little while. In many cases, even trying to write a scene in which your ensemble cast is split up can show you if they’re truly strong enough to carry a story. It’s possible that, on closer inspection, your ensemble are actually close-knit secondary characters packed around the true protagonist.
Since your ensemble all want things and are different, fleshed-out people (and since you’ve considered all their different relationships as you write them), you should feasibly be able to split them up into any configuration and write interesting, worthwhile scenes.
It’s also worth noting that, once your ensemble is strong enough, there’s no reason not to put them through different experiences. Let them express their value by giving them different paths, different information, and different challenges.
This is one of the core strengths of the Fellowship from the Lord of the Rings books – Tolkien takes his time establishing who each character is, and how they relate to each other, and then splits them up and hurls them to the four corners of an epic war.
The hobbits Merry and Pippin are great examples – those unfamiliar with the story often see them as the ‘other’ hobbits; the bumbling, comedic pals of Frodo and Sam, but it’s not the case. They have their own journey in the story, their own chance to steer the story, and Tolkien gives them the space to be both flawed and virtuous.
Assemble the ensemble
At its root, writing a great ensemble means putting in more work for greater rewards – fleshing out more characters and writing a plot that offers each of them the space and opportunity to matter. Ensuring each character works is a mixture of hard work and trial and error, and the best exercise you can do to achieve it is the one I already mentioned: split your groups up, create odd combinations, and see if they can truly carry a scene.
Try to also keep your eye on any single character claiming all the attention or fixing all the problems. It might make them particularly interesting, but you can still have that interest if you spread their feats over the ensemble, it’s just that you also get the benefits of a larger, more diverse cast.
In practice, ensemble casts don’t suit every project, but they’re an option you should consider as you develop your story. They can bring depth to simple stories, scope to larger ones, and give you the options you need to tell the most realistic, engaging version of your narrative possible.
What’s your favorite ensemble piece in fiction and why do you love it? What questions do you have about using an ensemble cast in your own writing? Let me know in the comments or, for more great advice on this topic, check out Adding A ‘B Plot’ Is The Simple Way To Improve Your Story and How To Avoid Writing A Mary Sue Protagonist.