Most stories are about a single character. This has many advantages. Spending more time on a single character lets you build more attachment and craft a more satisfying character arc, plus there’s less risk of a fractured story. Also, fewer names for the audience to remember!
But many authors want to increase the importance of secondary characters as well, redistributing screen time and development away from a single protagonist. This approach is often called an ensemble story, even if there’s still a single character who’s more important than the others. Aang is clearly the main character of Avatar: The Last Airbender, but calling that show an ensemble story won’t net you many objections.
The advantage of ensemble stories is that your story has more characters to love, but there are additional challenges as well. You need to balance everyone’s time in the spotlight, to say nothing of keeping all the characters distinct. Fortunately, ensemble stories are super popular, so there are a lot of good examples we can look to for inspiration!
This froggy kids’ show closes its run with a main cast of at least six, plus a number of important side characters, but it doesn’t start off that way. In the beginning, it’s just Anne the human girl and Sprig the frog boy, best friends and partners in crime. Their friendship arc is one of the show’s core storylines, so the writers need to get it started early.
For the early episodes, the rest of Sprig’s frog family – the Plantars – are just background flavor. It’s not until a bit later that we get episodes about Poly wanting to be taken seriously despite her youth, or Hop Pop feeling inadequate as a caretaker for his grandchildren. At the end of season one we add Sasha and her long struggle to not be evil, while season two gives us Marcy and her guilt arc over stranding the girls in Amphibia in the first place.
The second season is when Amphibia’s ensemble cast is at its strongest. The main characters are all together, and while the human girls have stronger arcs, the frog characters still have plenty of material, since this is their world and they’re more at home in it. Sasha hasn’t actually turned good at this point, but she’s pretending hard enough to go on several adventures like a normal hero.
Combined, the two seasons have a total of 40 episodes, which is a lot of time to introduce new characters. But Amphibia has a second trick up its sleeve: most episodes are further divided into two segments, each of which is a complete story in its own right. This sometimes gives the show a choppy feeling, as we rush from one plotline to another, but it has a major advantage: way more opportunities for character development.
It takes a long time for the major arcs to complete, so to keep attachment and satisfaction high in the meantime, we have plenty of mini arcs to split between our six protagonists. Anne bonds with her frog friends over weird vegetables. Sasha overcomes her initial disgust of this weird world to take charge. Marcy learns that book smarts aren’t everything. The list goes on.
It would be difficult to replicate these mini character arcs outside of a TV format. A series of connected short stories might do it, or maybe a really episodic novel. More realistically, authors would need to create mini arcs that are strongly connected to their throughline. If Marcy is going to learn that book smarts aren’t everything, it had better be while the team is looking for clues to take down the big bad.
Season three of Amphibia dials down the ensemble cast to focus more on Anne instead. Sasha and Marcy are both out of the picture for many of the episodes, and while the Plantar family is still around, they don’t have a lot of development to go through. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just shows that storytellers have to choose their priorities. Season three’s finale is very much focused on Anne’s emotions, so she needed more time to establish the emotional issues for her to deal with.
Where Amphibia introduced its main characters over an extended period, Firefly front-loads its entire cast into the first episode – all nine of them! That’s not just a lot of main characters to meet all at once; it’s a lot of main characters period! And even though the episodes are longer than Amphibia’s, Firefly has a lot fewer of them. So how does it manage such a strong cast?
First, let’s talk about something that isn’t a big factor: distinct personalities. The Firefly characters aren’t bad when it comes to personalities, but they aren’t exceptional either. Partly this is because they all have the same quippy style of dialogue, so their lines blend together after a while. Marvel movies have the same problem, especially now that T’Challa is sadly no longer with us. He was the only MCU hero who didn’t quip!
Instead of super well-defined personalities, Firefly depends on super well-defined jobs for each character. Most of these jobs are official:
- Mal: Captain
- Zoe: First officer
- Wash: Pilot
- Jayne: Public relations (muscle)
- Kaylee: Mechanic
- Simon: Doctor
Plus a couple of unofficial ones:
- Inara: Diplomat
- Book: Ship’s counselor
The only character without a clear job is River, but that’s okay because she’s the only one, so she still stands out. The other characters all have important things to do when it’s time for a job, be that giving orders, flying the ship, or offering sage advice.
From there, Firefly is very efficient with its time. While it isn’t feasible for every character to be part of every job, the majority of them are always involved, and it’s easy to understand what each of them brings to the table. Usually, it’s their established skills, with episodes being designed like RPG sessions. But characters also branch out occasionally, like the time they have Simon pretend to be their leader because he’s a natural at acting like a sheltered rich guy.
Firefly even manages to solve the First Officer Problem, as seen in several Star Trek shows. Often, the first officer is just the captain-in-waiting, so they have nothing to do while the captain is up and about. But the Firefly characters often have to be in multiple places at once, so Zoe can take command when Mal isn’t physically present. It also helps that Zoe is the better fighter, so Mal never overshadows her.
With each character getting a fair cut of each heist, the show has lots of chances to develop them, even with just 14 episodes. We see how Zoe makes difficult choices, why Kaylee isn’t a fighter, the way Mal and Wash hash out their differences, and way more that I don’t have time to list. It’s anyone’s guess whether the show could have maintained this pace over a longer run, but I’m still sad it never got the chance to try.
3. Deep Space Nine
Did you think nine major characters was a lot? Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet, because Deep Space Nine has so many more! Sure, on paper it’s eight or nine characters in the main cast, and Jake often has so little screen time that he barely qualifies. But that’s not taking into account the vast number of secondary characters who are as or nearly as important. I’m talking about Garak, Nog, Vic, Rom, Martok, Winn, and a bunch of others. For long-time fans, it’s easy to forget that most of these aren’t technically in the primary credits.
Despite being known for its rich cast of distinctive characters, DS9’s early episodes take a while to get the ball rolling, as no one seems to have a great grasp of who these characters are. Dax is bland, Bashir is annoying, Odo is a hard-line authoritarian, Quark hasn’t yet broken out of the standard Ferengi mold, and Kira is still reading the script written for Ro Laren. O’Brien is just kinda there. Sisko is better defined, as a father trying to balance parental and work responsibilities, but he’s a bit lonely in that regard.
This is definitely not an approach most writers can afford to take. As part of a major franchise, DS9 had a couple seasons to figure its characters out, while us mere mortals would have our stories dumped in the trash if we tried something similar. And despite its established status, DS9 suffered from its initially amorphous characters,* forcing the writers to introduce a war with the Klingons in season four so audiences would have a reason to come back.
Fortunately, the show does eventually get its characters figured out, and from there it goes in the opposite direction from Firefly: relying on distinct personalities rather than distinct jobs. Partly, that’s because so many Star Trek conflicts are solved by sciencing that it gets difficult to tell the difference between O’Brien sciencing, Dax sciencing, and Kira sciencing, even though they have different colored uniforms. At the same time, many of the major secondary characters have no specific job at all, like Garak, the plausibly deniable gay spy. Also Nog, who graduates Starfleet Academy for an exciting career in the department of whatever the writers need him doing today.
As the series finds its feet, so do the characters. Dax plays up her role as a worldly mentor while also dealing with occasional fallout from her past Trill lives. Odo dials down the authoritarianism and instead focuses on how being a shape-shifter makes him an outsider. Kira leans further into Bajoran spirituality, while O’Brien picks up the job of suffering horribly every few weeks. Oh, and actor Avery Brooks is able to play Sisko with a lot more intensity, and the network didn’t even try to stereotype him as a Scary Black Man, so that’s nice.
Important secondary characters go through similar changes or are introduced late enough to be fully formed from the start. Rom and Nog both struggle with their role in Ferengi society, with Nog going on to be one of the show’s most compelling characters as he faces the horrors of war. Vic the hologram talks other characters through their problems,* and Martok has a cool growth arc that ends with him leading the entire Klingon Empire.
How does DS9 manage to give so many characters so much development? Mostly by being extremely long. Seven seasons of TV can cover a lot of ground, even if a fair number of them are wacky one-offs that don’t go anywhere. If this is something you want to try in book form, then I suggest taking a page out of our next entry…
4. The Expanse
When I first compiled this, I realized that every entry was a TV show. To some extent, that’s to be expected. TV shows are a good fit for ensemble stories because they can support more characters than a movie, but they still have actors to shoulder some of the burden. It’s a lot easier to make memorable characters when your dialogue is delivered by people whose entire job is to evoke emotion from the audience.
But novelists also want to tell ensemble stories, and that’s the majority of my editing clients, so I decided to look at the Expanse books rather than the TV show. Admittedly, it takes a while before this story can be said to have an ensemble at all.
The early books are primarily about Holden and Miller. Holden is our brave captain who thinks all information should be immediately distributed to everyone regardless of context, and Miller is a private investigator who’s fallen in love with a missing lady by staring at her picture too much. I promise they’re not as bad as they sound.
Miller continues his role as second most important character even after dying at the end of book one, since a bit of alien tech allows him to live on as a ghost that only Holden can see. While this is happening, Holden has a small crew who will eventually become our ensemble: Naomi, Amos, and Alex.
These characters aren’t unformed or badly written, but they aren’t especially memorable either. Naomi fixes stuff, Amos hits stuff, and Alex flies stuff. Specifically, he flies their ship, the Rocinante. This is all the story needs at first, and it means we can focus on mysterious aliens and space politics without being overwhelmed by too much character description.
Over time, the secondary characters get fleshed out, eventually rivaling Holden in terms of development and screen time. We learn more about Naomi’s relationship to Belter politics, and Amos picks up a little buddy named Claire. Claire is originally a villain, but her backstory is so tragic that naturally she gets a redemption arc. Their friendship gives Amos a dimension beyond punching stuff, and her redemption contrasts with reveals about his dark past.
We also bring in a couple new characters who are much more memorable than the original crew were upon their introduction. There’s Bobbie the Martian-Samoan space marine, and Avasarala the sweet and grandmotherly Machiavelli. Neither of them is technically on the Rocinante’s crew,* but they’re such big presences that it hardly matters. Alex is the odd man out, as his character is still mostly tied up in flying the ship, but it’s a strong cast otherwise.
If you’re writing a series with a really meaty throughline that’ll take multiple books to resolve, this is a good way to build your ensemble cast. Start by focusing on your main character and high tension plot, then develop the other characters as you go rather than trying to make them fully formed from the start. It’s a tested method that means you never have to choose between plot and character.
What’s that, you haven’t had enough ’90s nostalgia lately? Great, because it’s time to talk about KA Applegate’s 62-book series about shape-shifting kids fighting alien brain-worms. Frankly, this series is in a league of its own when it comes to ensemble stories. It has six main characters,* and they are all of equal importance. Unlike the other stories we’ve looked at, and most other ensemble stories for that matter, there’s no main character at all!
More importantly, all six of them are distinct and memorable, never blurring together or fading into the background. And they’re all important in every book. And Applegate doesn’t even have in-universe jobs to differentiate them the way some of the previous entries do. It’s incredible; how does she do it?
It helps that the Animorphs books are written as a series of novellas rather than full novels. Each novella is from the POV of a different character, giving the characters a chance to frequently rotate the role of protagonist. This may not be the most useful strategy for anyone looking to write full novels, and even those of us who love novellas would have a hard time keeping up with Applegate’s blistering pace, with new books often being published twice a month. In fact, Applegate herself couldn’t keep up with it, and a series of ghostwriters pitched in later in the series.
However, there are a few tricks we can learn from Animorphs. First, Applegate establishes strong and easy to understand personality types for each character. Jake is a leader, Rachel is courageous, Cassie is compassionate, Marco is a joker, Tobias is an outsider, and Ax is a big ol’ nerd. Those last two are important. Tobias is trapped in the body of a red-tailed hawk, while Ax is an alien, so it would be easy for them to compete in the outsider department. By focusing on Ax’s technical affinity and social awkwardness, the characters become more distinct.
These traits make the six heroes easy to remember and give Applegate a strong base from which to add further developments. As the books go forward, we discover new complexities for each character, like Jake trying not to become callous as he makes life-and-death decisions for his friends, or Cassie deciding when violence is and isn’t necessary. The characters aren’t perfect, but they cover a lot of ground.
Applegate also simulates some of the job distinction from earlier by having the characters specialize in different morphs with their shapeshifting powers. Rachel has the best brawling morph in her grizzly bear, Tobias is the best flier from his time as a hawk,* Cassie is the best at tracking with her wolf morph, etc. There’s a bit of hand-waving here, as in most cases there’s no reason multiple characters couldn’t all acquire the same morphs, but it still works pretty well.
Other than that, it’s all down to plotting skills. Applegate and her ghost writers are really good at creating conflicts where all six protagonists are needed in some capacity, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a chart keeping track of how much emotional dialogue everyone was getting. It’s a remarkable achievement that we could all learn from.
There’s no single point where a story starts or stops being about an ensemble. It’s all a matter of degrees: The more you develop your secondary characters, the more likely people are to think of your story as having an ensemble cast. If that’s what you want, then there are a lot of great ways to do it. Just don’t let me see you using it as an excuse to fracture your plot between characters who don’t even interact. Applegate and her team didn’t bust their butts to be shown such disrespect!
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?