3/23/16 - The Ensemble
Starting today, I'm going to move from the Writing 101 series to the newer, more detailed 102 series. 101 was the basics, and now we're going to take a deeper look at some topics, and talk about a more nuanced way of writing. As with the 101, this has all got the Lauren-slant, and should totally be taken as my personal approach to writing, and not any sort of rule of law. So, ready?
Today we're going to talk about writing ensemble casts.
Organic, believable, compelling character development is essential to any great book, and no easy feat. Having organic, believable, compelling development among a large and diverse cast of characters? It's complicated. The more characters in play, the more intricate the juggling. Because I like to torture myself, I tend to work with large casts. This doesn't appeal to everyone, authors or readers, but in my eyes, there are some big advantages to setting the stage with lots of players:
- Real world feel: we don't live in bubbles, and a big cast makes the fictional world feel like a real place.
- Opportunities for story: characters can have side stories with other characters, and the plot has the potential to grown in any number of directions.
- Potential for a long-running series.
- A multitude of varying perspectives that give the story a richer, deeper tone.
It's a challenge, but a rewarding one, and a large cast lends itself to that cinematic feel I'm always shooting for in my work. For me, the great fun is that your ensemble is full of very different people, and they create a well-rounded look at your fictional world.
Here are my inexpert tips for writing ensembles:
- First, make sure there's a reason for the ensemble. The group approach should enhance the overall story. In my Dartmoor books, a big cast is necessary, because a club wouldn't consist of three guys.
- Make sure each character is his/her own person! This is the most important. Whether it's a group of friends, coworkers, family, or, yes, a biker club, there is personality diversity within every group. Writing about a group who all think, act, and speak in the same way (unless that's the point of your scifi clone novel) adds nothing to the story, and is not realistic. Every group needs to delegate tasks. For instance, not every Lean Dog can be just like Mercy: they need leaders, thinkers, organizers, enforcers, and foot soldiers. It takes all kinds.
- Create an interesting dynamic between the members of your ensemble. There will be disagreements. They won't all like one another. Some will be better friends than others. They will have conflicting goals (like, say Ghost, who's always looking out for the club as a whole, while his guys get caught up in personal struggles with their families at home). The goal is to keep it interesting.
- Use the varying POVs to add new interpretations, new world viewpoints, and new logic to the story. Every character should be interesting. Every character will be touched by different aspects of the story.
- Different strokes, you know the rest: with varying goals come varying wishes and fantasies, so a happy ending won't be exactly the same for each character. For example, Mercy's happy ending is Ava, and pretty much only Ava. Tango's happy ending will be happiness, finding a little peace with the idea that life has been terrible, but that it will get better.
Like I said, an inexpert list. After years of it, I can say that I prefer writing large ensemble casts, and that it keeps me engaged with my stories and on my toes, always ready to become fascinated by someone new. But it takes some planning, some thought, and a strict adherence to your characters, and their personalities.