Saturday, December 17

Are Ensembles Only for Television?

When I ask you to think of television series, I’m sure several will spring to mind that have a fair few main characters. Several will have 3-6 in leading roles, perhaps even more. The ability to keep a television show revolving around multiple characters on a balanced level allows for there to be far more diversity in the show’s events and not bore out the viewers by dragging along a particular story line.

Novels are different. Short stories are a given because there just isn’t the space for several characters - but plenty of books and series have a fair few characters wandering in their midst. Even so, the average number of main characters is at the lesser end of the scale, perhaps around three, give or take.

A book often has one protagonist. If the narration is in first person, you’re stuck with them for every second of the plot. Yep, the author just glued you to this character. You had better hope that they are likable. If the novel is written in third person there is the chance that you will get to go on little trips and sneak inside the moments that the protagonist doesn’t get to see or know about just yet. Either way, the story still revolves around your protagonist. S/he is the hero after all.

The thing is…I think that ensemble casts are enjoyable. Sure, they have that potential side effect of everyone hooking up with everyone else at different points in the series – but apart from that, they make for good story telling and excellent character dynamics.

‘Oh sure,’ you say. ‘The cookie-cutter archetypes, all lobbed together to make drama and funnies. That’s just what we need.’

You have a point, anonymous and outspoken “you.” While these characters can be appealing enough to watch on television, they can fall into clichés and archetypes that we might scrutinise more when the little critique critters, that run around in our brain, analyse our literary creations.

Of course, the number of characters you have in your story depends on the genre and length. If you are writing an epic adventure, you will doubtless have many more characters. The same goes for novels that span more than one generation. Do you think that there are some genres which lend themselves better to wider casts, such as epic fantasy or historical nautical novels? I suppose any genre can be focused on a smaller cast or span a bigger one, depending on how they are handled.

What are the real pros and cons of having more characters in your novel?

  • Multiple characters with a large focus can allow for readers to identify and connect with a character, that other reads may not feel so akin to.
  • More story lines allow for there to be more tension and intrigue spanning the plot.
  • Taking time off from certain characters will allow the reader to become eager to see them again, instead of feeling smothered the same three characters all the time.
  • Several characters allows for more character dynamics between them. The reader may be interested to see how one character interacts with others completely outside his main circle.
  • The writer can make more opportunities for interconnected events and literary Easter eggs with more characters and story lines.
  • It may be confusing what is happening at what time in which part of the story. The reader may become confused between transitions and lose focus on what's important while trying to catch up.
  • Focusing on two many character in equal amounts may mean that there is less opportunity for character development between them. They may not become as evolved or interesting enough to compel the reader.
  • The reader may become attached to one character and not care at all of another. That way, they will be bored or aggravated when they reach chapters or scenes focusing solely on him.
  • The individual stories of the characters may feel too separate or they might become too jumbled up and the reader will have problems differentiating certain events and moments in the story.
  • Too many character focuses might drag down the progression of the plot if too much time is spent on character development.
I think that a smaller cast of characters in a book can allow the reader to wrap themselves up in their world and see what develops but I do love the idea of a wider focus with more characters to interact with each other and give diversity to the story.

What is your preference? When does a larger cast of characters work best in fiction?

1 comment:

Michael said...

I'm a big fan of large-scale works with fair-sized ensemble casts, though sometimes with one person who is still the "main" protagonist. And since I heavily favour writing in first-person, that means most of my works do actually have more than one first-person narrator. After all, every character should be an individual person; writing from the point of view of several characters helps bring them to life, helps me as the writer to get used to their "voices" and hopefully helps the reader to get more immersed in them. It's also a great way to shed light on the main character, by revealing that the way others see her doesn't quite match how she sees herself. But yes, the other advantages you've listed are important too -- a very nice list.