Developing an ensemble cast

This essay was originally posted to the writing community Get Your Words Out on July 8, 2019.

Unless you’re writing a literal Man vs. Self plot, your story is going to have at least two characters. Conflict! Romance! Betrayal! The internet is littered with infographics about the twenty characters you must have, articles about how to make your antagonist the dark mirror of your protagonist, explanations of Jungian archetypes, charts describing the archetypes of the Hero’s journey, and so on and so on…

Advice like that can be helpful when your plot involves a protagonist and antagonist going head to head, and you need to round out your supporting case. But say you’ve got an idea that calls for not just one hero but two or three or more — a group of protagonists who have the same ultimate goal. An ensemble.

Like a good D&D party, the ensemble will give you the necessary skills and knowledge for your heros to triumph over the challenges presented by the plot. You could have a knight for fighting, a rogue for spying, a wizard for book-based magic, and a druid for nature-based magic. A good DM, like a good author, will design the campaign to use the characters’ strengths and knowledge, but will also use their weaknesses to present ever-increasing challenges to the party.

To make your plot even more fun, the antagonist can have an ensemble of their own, with each member a dark mirror of the protagonists in order to show how one different choice could have brought the ensemble down a darker path.

An ensemble cast can also be less straight-forward and more symbolic: for example, a popular theory about the TV series “The Haunting Of Hill House” is that the five siblings represent the five stages of grief. The hard part with this approach is to prevent the characters from just being Symbol McFlatCharacter but to be real people inhabiting your story world, who also happen to be the embodiment of whatever abstract concept they’re meant to represent.

Developing a character can be difficult; developing an ensemble cast is difficult to the power of 5 (or whatever number you end up using.) All of your characters need names, backgrounds, flaws, and virtues. You don’t want each character to be a copy of the others: while they all should share some values and have the same ultimate goal, they should also have their own goals to achieve (or fail at achieving, whatever the plot calls for.) The siblings of “The Haunting of Hill House” start the series in conflict because of events from their childhood and choices made in their adult lives, but ultimately they have a united goal: to save their family from the ghosts of Hill House.

The ensemble needs to have come together in a way that makes sense; for example, are they students at the same school (“Riverdale,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Oran High School Host Club”), are they part of a military unit (any number of Navy SEAL-based romance series), are they family members (“The Haunting of Hill House,” “The Umbrella Academy”)? Did a mastermind bring them together (the MCU, “Leverage”)? Do they work at the same office (most sitcoms)? Did they all happen to be on the same train or flight (many disaster movies of the 70s)? Or is the ensemble made up of a combination of these, such as the Fellowship in The Lord of The Rings and the Company in The Hobbit — ensembles made of up family members, sworn allies, and humble hobbits sheltered from the bigger world and brought together by the Mastermind, Gandalf.

Questions to ask yourself while you plot your ensemble story/stories: what are the circumstances that give the cast their ultimate goal, and is that ultimate goal strong enough to bind them together and to distract them from their personal goal? Love of family, love of country, vengeance against a common enemy, saving the world — ensembles often deal with big concepts that provide enough of a challenge to need multiple characters to bear the burden.

If you’re writing an origin story, show how trust builds between them. If you’re jumping in media res with the cast, show the dynamics of the cast members, how they work together, why sometimes they don’t. (Fiction is conflict! And if the ensemble is in conflict, how can the antagonist use this to their advantage?)

If you’re having difficulty making each member of the ensemble different from each other, ask yourself if an ensemble cast is really what will serve the story best. Can the roles of two characters believably be filled by one? If so, you may want to pare down your cast: instead of a fighter who dominates the story and a genius who only appears in a scene or two, the fighter could also be the genius. Establish the character’s intelligence and strength believably — for instance, is the character a tank who is also good at tactics? — and the story should roll smoothly on.

Characters can be cycled in and out of the ensemble as necessary, if you’re writing a series or episodic work. Comics often do this with teams, as will TV series when an actor moves on from the role or passes away. It can be done in prose when the author feels a character’s arc is complete, or even if they decide the character isn’t properly filling their role. Changes like this will often require a scene of acceptance by the rest of the cast, or a rebuilding of trust. You could even bring in an antagonist’s former team member, who the team will initially be suspicious of, but who could earn their trust (and then betray it, or not, if you want a redemption storyline.)

Designing an ensemble can lead your story in many interesting directions, and set up a framework for you to tell your big idea. Create believable, unique characters; get them involved in the big idea; establish their friendship or other ties to each other; and then unleash hell. They will carry each other through.

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