Writing Excuses 17.20: Basics of Ensemble Characterization
Key points: What is an ensemble? Everyone has their own weight, emotional or physical. Everyone matters, and they play a part. One hallmark is multiple POVs used not to change locations, but because other characters can move the story forward. A story with a lot of important characters in it. Where do you start? Start with the protagonist protagonist, the leader of the group. Why does the story need the ensemble? Answering this question separates an ensemble from the story of a single person and the people who assist them. Are the other people just spear carriers or are they real characters?
[Season 17, Episode 20]
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, the first episode of our new masterclass about ensemble casts. This episode is the Basics of Ensemble Characterization.
[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 are very excited to have Zoraida Cordova with us. Kaela Rivera is also on the show, and you’ve heard from her before in one of our previous masterclasses. Zoraida, tell us about yourself.
[Zoraida] Hello. I’m Zoraida Cordova. I am the author of several young adult, adult, and romance novels. I predominantly write YA fantasy. I have a series, The Brooklyn Brujas series. My latest adult novel is The Inheritance of Orquidea Divina, which is more magical realism. I’m trying not to write the same thing twice. But you never know. I also write for Star Wars.
[Dan] Cool. Well, we’re very excited to have you. You’re kind of the leader of this class about ensemble casts. So let me ask the very first question. What is an ensemble? Lots of stories have more than one character, what makes it an ensemble specifically?
[Zoraida] The thing that makes it an ensemble to me is everyone sort of has their own weight. The story couldn’t function the same without every single one of these characters. Sometimes it’s emotional weight, sometimes it’s a physical presence. I like to think of things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Friends. I’m just using those as big shows that people already are familiar with. Every single person almost matters in those stories, and they play a part. There’s really interesting dynamics. Obviously, The Avengers movies are a big ensemble cast. But when it comes to books, it’s almost harder to navigate those waters, because the text has to do so much work than the visual. So that’s what an ensemble cast is to me.
[Dan] Yeah. So, like Orquidea Divina, your book, I think has a really great ensemble cast, because it’s specifically about a family, and eventually narrows in very tightly on three of those characters, but you could not tell that story without discussing everyone and how they relate to each other and kind of letting them bounce off of each other.
[Zoraida] Yeah. Thank you.
[Howard] I think one of the hallmarks of… Hallmark… The flag that goes up that says, oh, this is actually about an ensemble, is when you have multiple POVs, but you didn’t switch POV because they were in different places. You just switched POV because this other character needs… The way they are perceiving what the group is doing is what is moving the story forward right now. It’s… I mean, that’s not hard and fast, but anytime I see that, I expect, oh, this is an ensemble. The Powder Mage books by Brian McClellan, he introduces I think three POVs in the first three chapters. But all three of those people are in completely different locations, and it doesn’t read like an ensemble book. I’m not knocking it. I loved the Powder Mage series. But, just because there’s lots of POVs doesn’t mean you’re writing an ensemble.
[Dan] Yeah. There’s a difference between telling multiple stories under the umbrella of a single book and telling a story that has a lot of important characters in it. So, if someone is writing or wants to write about an ensemble cast, where do they start? What are some important considerations for doing the characterization?
[Zoraida] I think it’s important to look at the protagonist protagonist. I always call… I call my hero that, or my heroine that. Because sometimes, even though you have a group of people, there is still a leader. To me, they shape the relationship between themselves and everybody else. That is the beginning of characterization when I start writing a book.
[Howard] Yeah. You’ve got the pro protagonist and then all the other protagonists.
[Zoraida] The co-protags.
[Dan] The co-tagonists.
[Howard] I think of… I mean, we’ve mentioned the Avengers film. Analyzing that, the first Avengers movie… Analyzing it is a lot of fun, because part of what makes it work is the realization that this is kind of Tony’s journey. Everybody has brilliant character moments, and it’s great fun all the way through. But you begin picking it apart and you realize, oh, Loki picked the top of Tony’s tower, which is where Tony got dragged into this. When… Oh, what’s his name? Phil Coulson…
[Howard] He has a name. He was dating a cellist. He’s a real person. When Phil shows up and Tony’s the one at the end who does the thing that Captain America said he wouldn’t do… Jumps on the grenade for everybody else. So… That thread is not a strong thread throughout the film. But nobody else has a stronger thread. So, Tony’s our pro-protag, and everybody else is just one step below that. That’s a useful… For me, that’s a super useful consideration.
[Dan] Yeah. Another example that is coming to mind is Star Trek. Most of the Star Trek series are very strong ensemble casts. In Next Generation, Picard, if anything, is our protagonist protagonist. He’s the one that is kind of at the center of a lot of the stories. But we get to know everyone on the bridge, everyone in other parts. They play poker together, they do sports and other games together. The stories are not about just a thing happening, but how does this group of people respond to the thing happening. Compare that to Star Trek Discovery, which is very specifically about Michael Burnham. The first few seasons, most of the characters in the show didn’t even have names. It was Michael, it was Saru, a handful of others, and then a bunch of nameless nobodies on the bridge, because it was not an ensemble show. It was the Michael Burnham show. So the same kind of story, but told in two very different ways.
[Kaela] I think one of the things that distinguishes a protagonist protagonist for me is the fact that, like, the most essential, in that, like, all of the ensemble are important, but it’s like all of them are sort of threaded through the protagonist protagonist journey. Like, they all have touch points in there. As an example… You’ll have to forgive me, I’m a middle grade writer, so cartoons are the first thing I think of when I think of media.
[Kaela] But I loved Hey Arnold! growing up. If you look at Hey Arnold!… Yes, thank you. Hey Arnold! was so good growing up. Still watch it. Like, Hey Arnold!, Arnold is the key character, he’s the protagonist protagonist. But at the same time, throughout like the several seasons it got, he only has like four episodes really that are focused solely on him. Most of them are like people have touch points with Arnold, that is about Arnold’s heart. Like, his heart, his themes, his character journey as a person. But they thread in Arnold’s experience and he becomes an important touch point for them on their character journey. So, I think that’s also an important part.
[Zoraida] I think while we’re talking about cartoons, for me it was Sailor Moon.
[Zoraida] That I sometimes when people ask me, like, why do you like this? I feel like a combination of Sailor Moon and Gargoyles. Both of those are the touch points for me as a creator. I feel like Sailor Moon is a story of these girls fighting against evil, fighting for love and goodness in the world. Right? They’re the guardians of love. One of the things that separates them, for me, is, without her group, without the other sailor scouts or sailor sun shields, Sailor Moon is just a girl by herself. But with them, this group together, they’re… The dynamics of the group change as she finds each one and the story progresses.
[Dan] Yeah. Let’s pause here. Do our book of the week. This week, that is Valentina Salazar is Not a Monster Hunter. Zoraida, can you tell us about that one?
[Zoraida] Yes. Speaking of ensemble casts, Valentina Salazar is Not a Monster Hunter is my second middle grade novel. It comes out on June 28th of this year. It is about a young girl named Valentina Salazar who is a monster protector. But her family is descended from a long line of monster hunters. After her dad dies, her family gets landlocked. They no longer travel around the country saving monsters. Instead, they’re just living in upstate New York. One day, she finds a viral video of a very, very rare monster egg. She convinces her siblings to steal the van, called the Scourge of land and sea. They take the van and they go in search of this monster egg before the hunters get hold of it. So, it’s about family and not all monsters look monstrous. That comes out this summer, so… I’m very excited.
[Dan] Awesome. Yeah, that one will be out end of June, so you can go and preorder it right now. Which we strongly encourage you to do. Again, that is Valentina Salazar is Not a Monster Hunter, by Zoraida Cordova.
[Dan] So, let’s get back into a couple more questions about what an ensemble is and how it works. In future weeks, we’ll talk more about how to do all of this. But I do want to ask kind of a crunchy question. When you are working with an ensemble cast, we know that the protagonist protagonist is kind of… They’re the lead of the ensemble, so to speak. But every part, every other character in there is important. Why does the story require all of those extra people? Why can’t the story or the main character function without that ensemble behind them?
[Zoraida] I think answering that question is what separates it from… An ensemble and then just a singular journey. Right? Then just a journey of one person and the people that assist them along the way.
[Howard] I’m going to state the super unpopular opinion that I have. Which is that I loved the Hobbit movies…
[Howard] Because they took a story that made the dwarves just faceless short angry dudes with beards…
[Howard] I’m a faceless short angry dude with a beard.
[Howard] I’m sorry, I want to be a person. It turned them all into people and it created an ensemble. Now, we could argue until the rock trolls come home about whether it created an effective ensemble. But for me, it worked. That was… For me, that was the principal difference. A lot of people say, “Well, Tolkien was able to tell that story in one little novel. Why did you need three movies?” Because we wanted to tell the story… Pieter Jackson wanted to tell the story in a way that turned all of these into people. Honestly, when you’re making a movie, and you have a dozen people on the screen and they’re just all spear carriers, that’s a waste of camera angles. That’s… you can throw those people away easily in a short story, in a novella, in a novel. But if you’re trying to build something where we actually look at the characters, we have to justify their existence.
[Dan] Absolutely. So. We are going to get into that a little more in future episodes. We’ll talk more about how to do this, how to make the characters unique, how to establish your ensemble.
[Dan] But for now, we want to give you some homework. Okay. This, we’re going to look at your main character. At your protagonist protagonist. We want you to free write just a little short thing in which they are applying for the job… Applying for the job of being the protagonist of your book. They get to talk about why they are going to be good at overcoming the challenges, why they’re going to be bad, and therefore interesting, at overcoming the challenges. Whatever it is you want to do. Just free write that. Get a sense of who that person is.
[Howard] Hey, what’s this blank spot on your resume? Oh, that’s when I was one of the dwarves in The Hobbit.
[Howard] I wasn’t really employed.
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.
[Mary Robinette] Put the go in go write at one of the Writing Excuses 2022 retreats in Capital Reef National Park in Utah and aboard the Liberty of the Seas in the Western Caribbean. Go to writingexcusesretreat.com for more info.