Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

17.22: Establishing the Ensemble

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Zoraida CordovaKaela Rivera, and Howard Tayler

Every character in your ensemble needs to matter to the team, or they probably don’t belong in the ensemble. Zoraida Cordova leads us into this discussion of how we build our ensembles, how we introduce the characters, and how we ensure that all of them are important to the group.

Liner Notes: The article about Superman’s very first line of dialog is here.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Pick an ensemble work that you like. Identify each member of the ensemble and why they are important, and what they bring to the story.

Thing of the week: Ghost Station, by Dan Wells.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: How can you make all of your character matter? Start by giving everybody an introduction tied to the big change at the core of your book, show us their reaction to it. Play up those changes as they meet each other for the first time. Show us why we should like these people. Use a task list, character name, introduce them, describe them, make us like them, aim them at the story. Help the readers know the characters, and then you can use them. You get more combinations and fusions then. Pair them up and explore the sandpaper interactions. Use another character to help readers know what to feel.

[Season 17, Episode 22]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Establishing the Ensemble.

[Zoraida] 15 minutes long.

[Kaela] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Zoraida] I’m Zoraida.

[Kaela] I’m Kaela.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Dan] We… Last week, we talked about making sure that all your characters are different. What we want to talk about this time is making sure all of your characters matter. Giving them equal space, equal weight, equal time, whatever it is. So, Zoraida, we’re going to throw this to you, like we always do. Why is this important, and how do we start?

[Zoraida] This is important because every character in your ensemble needs an equal amount of importance. Right? Like, they need to share in this goal that they’re going to go forth and conquer. When I start, in my books, I give everybody an introduction that has to do with the big change. Right? So, I feel like in a book there’s something that has changed in the world, and now these people are all reacting to it. This could be in contemporary, it could be in fantasy, sci-fi, whatever. But the inciting incident, the change, is now transforming every single person. But before that, we get to see a glimpse of who they are before they meet each other. Because sometimes you have ensemble casts where it’s strangers coming together, or, like, The Fast and Furious movies, right? Huge ensemble. They already know each other, and then you have an outsider coming in, right? So, playing up with those changes is my starting point.

[Howard] There’s a couple of cinematic examples that are super useful. One of these is the… Serenity, the movie. Where, in the first few minutes, we are introduced to everybody aboard the ship. It goes very, very quickly. Wash says, “Things are about to get interesting.” Mal says, “What do you mean by interesting? Oh, God, oh, God, we’re all going to die?” That’s… In two lines, we’ve established a little bit of relationship between those two. This is an ensemble that’s already come together, but they needed that opening romp there on that planet to introduce us to them as individuals and how they function as a team. The other good example itself, and I’ve mentioned this before as a master class sort of thing to study, is the first Guardians of the Galaxy. Where, as we are introduced to each of these characters, James Gunn is using every cinemagraphical tool in his toolbox to let us know that we’re supposed to like these people. The example I always come back to is… Now I’ve forgotten her name. The green skinned one.

[Garbled. Gamora.]

[Howard] Gamora.


[Howard] I know. How could I… It begins with a Z? No, it doesn’t begin with a Z. No, that’s not right. Gamora. When we are introduced to her, she is the only green thing in a room full of blue and black. So even though what she is saying is very aggressive and threatening, we have been told this is the person that we like. Anyway, between those two visual examples, I have a whole toolbox of things that I use when I am introducing characters via prose. I recognize… If I’m introducing you to someone not in their own POV, but I want you to like them and they’re going to be part of my ensemble, what am I doing to set them apart from the people around them? What am I doing to make you like them? What am I doing to make you interested in them, so that when we come back to them, we’re like, “Oh, yes. I’m so happy this person joined the team.”

[Dan] Absolutely. You get a… The book that keeps coming to mind, and this is not an ensemble book, so it is not necessarily a good example. But, in Pride and Prejudice, early on, you get to meet all of the sisters. Actually, maybe Little Women is a better example, because that one is much closer to an ensemble cast. It still is primarily about Jo, but you get to know who all of the sisters are and how they interact with each other. You get introduced to them fairly quickly. Now, not all of them have equal space by any means. But they all, in their own way, are important to the story. You’ve got the sick one, and we have to really get to like her, because, spoiler warning for this 200-year-old book…


[Dan] Things are not going to go well for her. That affects everybody else. One of the reasons…

[Howard] She doesn’t die, does she?

[Dan] That I absolutely…


[Dan] Howard!


[Dan] One of the reasons that I love, love, love the Saoirse Ronan movie of Little Women is because it gives much more weight and a little more space to… And now I can’t remember her name, but the sister who’s in the book kind of the snotty one who gets all the stuff that Jo wants and can’t have. Giving her that little bit of extra attention, so we get to see things from her perspective, absolutely rounds out her character. Suddenly, she’s no longer kind of the villain of Jo’s story, she’s just part of this ensemble who helps make everyone who they are. So being able to give the right amount of weight and space to the characters really helps everyone come together as a unit.

[Howard] I think it’s useful when you’re outlining, and even if you’re not outlining, even if you’re discovery writing your way into this, have a task list that’s like character name, and introduce them, describe them, make us like them, aim them. Just four little things where you just have this in front of you so that you know I’m not meandering through their dialogue and their scene. I have four goals here. Especially, early in a book, when I’m trying to establish an ensemble. I have to name the character, I have to make them distinctive, I have to give them a… I have to give them personality. And I have to aim them at the story, so that as the story unfolds through other points of view or other scenes, when that character shows up again, they show up on the vector that we expected. Or, if they’re not on the vector that we expected, that’s interesting. We thought they were going to show up wearing the top hat. But, no, they’ve turned the top hat into a gun, or something.


[Howard] I’m making dumb stuff up, because I didn’t think this out well enough before hand.

[I want to see that character]

[Howard] Do better than I’m doing, please.

[Zoraida] No, but I understand what you’re saying, because we’re tasked with making… Yes, okay, we have protagonist and supporting protagonists, and they’re all working together for a common goal. They all have their own voice. We’ve done all of that work. So, now, how do we introduce them in a way that becomes memorable, in a way that says, like, I want to see more of this person. I want to see their point of view, or I want to see them in a scene. The really rich part to me when I have multiple groups of people is getting them alone together, like, so, breaking them into smaller groups and seeing how those dynamics play around. I just finished binging The Expanse TV show. The way that they introduce every single character, they… I immediately wanted them all to be friends. As the seasons progressed, I wanted them… Like, if they were not in a… There was, like, one season where they weren’t together all the time. I was like, “Where are they? Why aren’t they together?”


[Zoraida] “Please get them back on [the route to Dante?] as soon as possible.” That’s the feeling that I want readers to have when they walk into a story. Like, get my people back here.

[Howard] Yeah, I think… The second season of Stranger Things, I think, had the same sort of problem. Where our ensemble had been broken up and they were in different places. Yeah, sure, they come back together at the end… Maybe it was season… I don’t know what season it was. But the point is, it was… I was enjoying the season, but I was angry that I didn’t have my ensemble for so much of it.

[Dan] So, our book of the week this week is actually mine. It is Ghost Station. This is my Cold War spy novel. It’s about cryptographers in Berlin in 1961. Very paranoid and… Anyway.


[Dan] But… When I submitted this, the editor who bought it, their very first comment was we need to fill out this ensemble better. A lot of it is workplace. He works in a listening station in West Berlin. There are several other spies there, whether they’re cryptographers or surveillance people or whatever they are. His main note for me was we need to get to know all of these people better. He was absolutely right. It made the book much, much better to spend more time with that group and get to know them, because it gave more chances for friendly banter. It gave more chances for suspicious things to be dropped. It gave more chances for the main character to feel nervous and self-conscious, because of the things he didn’t want people to discover. All of that came together so well because we got to know all of those characters. So it… I didn’t plan it as an ensemble book, but the editor helped make it into one, and that made it much better. So, Ghost Station by Dan Wells. We just got a printed edition of this out, you can get it on Amazon. So, hooray.


[Dan] Hurry and go buy that.

[Excellent. Buy the book.]

[Dan] So. How does that work for the rest of you? Knowing who the characters are, and helping the reader to know who the characters are, really improves everything about the ensemble. How do we do that? How does that… First of all, let’s ask the question why. Why does getting to know the characters really, really well affect the story and affect the interactions?

[Zoraida] I think it’s because once everybody has established personalities, you have sort of… You have an endless opportunity for different character dynamics and interactions. You have somebody who can make a mistake, you have somebody who can keep everybody on task, you have somebody who, like, they might have nefarious things, they might be playing both sides… It’s very vague, because I’m not picking a genre to go with it, but the more you know about a character, the more you can utilize them. Like Howard said, right, it’s like aiming a gun, aiming something, and entering them to do the thing that they are there for on the page.

[Kaela] Yeah, like…

[Howard] The very… Oh, go ahead, Kaela.

[Kaela] I was going to say that the more familiar you are with anything, the more you… It’s like being a chef. When you know how everything works, you’re able to start combining things and seeing them and seeing all the different possibilities for new combinations, for fusions, etc. I actually think that’s something that the MCU does super well, like, Guardians of the Galaxy Two, I was really curious how they were going to set that up and how they were going to explore new character dynamics. Like, I never expected Yondu and Rocket Raccoon to have, like, one of the most emotionally moving story lines in film to me. I was like I did not expect a blue man and a raccoon to make me cry, but they did.


[Kaela] But that’s because they knew those characters so well that they knew that they were really similar, and they wanted to explore that. There was an opportunity there. I loved how they did that. It’s one of the things that, like, I’m most interested in in ensembles is how, like… I call it sandpaper. Is how you know them well, you can pair them together and you know exactly how to get the right angle on it so that they’re scraping in a way that’s interesting, that’s sanding them both down into something new, but is also getting a lot of interesting friction, a lot of interesting conflict for the reader. That’s something I love to do in my books even.

[Howard] The very… I was just reading this last night. The very first Superman comic book, and in fact, I think it’s the very first line of dialogue we get from Superman, he is a jerk. He’s carrying this woman who is tied up, and he leaps to safety, and sets her down and says, “I don’t have time to untie you. Attend to it yourself.” Then he jumps away to go do other stuff. Okay?


[Howard] That’s our first introduction to Superman. Now, this was, depending on how you feel about the creators of Superman, and they were young guys who learned a lot about writing, whatever. None of it matters. This was sloppy because she’s actually the bad guy. But Superman doesn’t know it yet. So him dissing, sort of… Discomforting the person who the writers knew was actually a bad guy is fine, but we don’t know it. My point here is that when somebody says something, if it’s something that’s going to rub the reader the wrong way, if is they’re insulting someone or being mean or whatever, if you give us another character who has an opinion about that, you can tell us how to feel. If she’d had a thought bubble… This would be dumb, but if she’d had a thought bubble, like, “He’s being so mean to me. Does he know that I’m really the murderer?”


[Howard] Okay. Don’t do that. But that would totally make the line okay from Superman, because maybe Superman does know. So that’s one of the things that I think about, is that any time I’m introducing these characters, any time I’m trying to define them, I make sure that they say a thing and that somebody else has an opinion about it that helps inform how I want the reader to feel about it.


[Dan] We are going to end with that, and have some homework. What we want you to do this week is to pick an ensemble work that you like. This could be a book, this could be a movie, this could be a TV show. Maybe you want to do Community or Star Trek or Little Women or whatever it is. Identify each member of the ensemble, and why they are important, and why the story could not be told without them. Not just it’s fun to have Drax in this movie because of X, Y, and Z. But specifically, why would this movie not work without Drax? Do that for every character of the ensemble. See what you can learn about it. Anyway, this is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.

[Mary Robinette] Brandon, Howard, Dan, me, Mary Robinette, and a few special guests are going to go write this September on the big group Writing Excuses cruise. We’d love for you to join us. See for details and for information on other upcoming in person events.