I'm going to just off-the-bat admit that I'm not a huge fan of either Friends or the Beatles (nothing against either of them), but that title was probably the most clever one I could come up with for the topic I wanted to write about.
I tweeted out a couple days ago that I was having a lot of thoughts about ensemble casts, and that I was maybe going to write about those thoughts that night, which is naturally why I'm writing about them today. I probably should be writing the third act of Collapse of Kingdoms right now, but here we are.
I think a good place to start is maybe to properly define what I mean when I'm talking about an ensemble cast. I think that this can oftentimes be confused by something with a large cast of characters. By and large, most fiction has a single main protagonist, maybe two. The key to an ensemble cast isn't the number of characters, but the number of them directly related to the protagonist and their goals; sub-protagonists, if you will, whose own individual character arcs happen to, in some way or another, inform that of the protagonist.
The easy fantasy example here would be Lord of the Rings, which was the prototype for the adventuring party. Every member of the Fellowship had their own reason for being there, and (to lesser or greater degrees) their own character arcs, and yet the story wasn't about Gandalf's sacrifice and resurrection, or Aragorn's ascent to the throne, despite those being significant plot points, and major events in the lives of the respective characters.
I think that's probably at the core of what makes ensembles so appealing. Everyone loves the Hero's Journey. Everyone, at their core, wants to see good prevail over evil, to see the conflict resolved. Everyone wants to identify with that, to feel a connection with it. In works with a solitary protagonist, it becomes a bit problematic: does one write a well-defined character that only resonates with a fraction of individuals, or make a character a blank slate onto which one can project oneself? The former can result in a protagonist that can be disliked, even hated, by an audience, and the latter can result in a bland character met with indifference. Ensembles present a variety of characters prominent enough in the story that anyone can have their favourite. People like having a favourite - Ringo, Legolas, Chandler, Sir Gawain.
I mean, Ringo was never really anyone's favourite, but you get the idea.
Just look at Overwatch. I have neither the time nor the computing power to run the game, but through sheer cultural osmosis I can tell you that I'd probably main Tracer if I did.
So what about the other side of the coin? What about writing ensemble casts? I feel confident in saying that the Four Kingdoms books are definitely ensemble books, and with that I definitely want to add the caveat that I am by no means an expert on the subject. That said, I think there are some key points to writing ensembles that I've unintentionally cribbed from some of my favourite media, the latter of which I'll probably toss in at the end.
- The Protagonist is the protagonist for a good reason - Whatever the central conflict of the story, the protagonist has to be at the centre of it in such a way that no one else in the cast could be. It's pretty easy to fall into Chosen One territory here (which, if that's your thing, cool), especially in genre fiction, but it's tantamount to making the story make sense.
Footnote: No, the Eagles couldn't have just dropped the ring into Mount Doom, the same way the RAF couldn't just go and bomb Hitler.
- The ensemble works because the characters are diverse - This should be a bit of a no-brainer, but no one would have watched Ocean's Eleven if every character was Brad Pitt, or Don Cheadle et. al acting like Brad Pitt.
- Every character has a story, but not one so prominent as to detract from the main plot - It's easy to fall into the trap of finding your own favourite character as you write an ensemble, often not your protagonist. While each of the characters having their own personal conflicts adds dimension and depth, be careful not to let their stories overshadow the main plot. It will end up being a mess, not unlike the final season of How Barney Dated Robin and WHOOPS! I Forgot The Story I Was Trying to Tell.
- Conflict within your ensemble is natural, but don't forget the resolution - Spend enough time with the same people, and personalities will clash. That said, your ensemble is also an ensemble because they have something in common, be it friendship, a common goal, or even blood ties. While 100% antagonistic relationships in any of these scenarios are not completely unheard of, actually think about your own family/friend group/workplace, and whether or not everyone therein would be able to function if there was nothing but toxicity between even two members - they probably wouldn't.
Like I said, I'm far from an expert, but I think these are some solid foundation points. I'll also add that, while I think I do a good enough job writing an ensemble cast, I have a few examples of various media that I've looked to for inspiration, so feel free to get into them and geek out with me about them!
- Patrick Weekes' Rogues of the Republic
- Final Fantasy IX (I didn't play VII, and this one is magical)
- Love Hina
- Erin M. Evans' Brimstone Angels
- Bones Brigade: An Autobiography
What are some of your favourite stories featuring ensemble casts? Who are your favourite ensemble characters? If Ringo Starr played Overwatch, who do you think he'd main?
Probably Agent 76, right?