A main character? Pshaw, that’s so last year! In 2023, we’re all about big casts of characters who get equal development. Or, at least, mostly equal development. Maybe there can still be someone who’s kind of the main character. Just a little. If that’s confusing to you, then have no fear, we shall explain all. We talk about what an ensemble story is, why you might use one, what the pitfalls are, and, of course…whales on the Enterprise?
Generously transcribed by Paloma Palacios. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle.[opening song]
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, with me today is…
Oren: Now, there is no main host of this podcast, though if there was it would be Chris, instead…
Chris: (laughs) No!
Oren: Instead, we are an ensemble show because it’s about all of us and all of our hot takes.
Chris: Wait, but there’s only three of us. Does it really count as an ensemble with only three characters?
Oren: I’m glad you asked, because it’s time for sandwich discourse!
Oren: Aka, what is an ensemble story?
Chris: We can’t talk about anything without making a sandwich first.
Oren: You can’t, it’s impossible!
Wes: Ha, ha, ha!
Chris: Get the munchies every time.
Oren: Yeah. So the strictest definition is stories that have no main character and are about a group instead, and the examples usually given are sitcoms, more often than not, like Friends and Golden Girls. It’s hard to say who among those is the main character, but that’s not really how most people use the term. When people talk about ensemble stories, usually what they just mean is that the story has given enough development to secondary characters that it feels like the story is also about those secondary characters, even if there is still a main character. And it’s fuzzy, right? Like, Deep Space Nine is generally considered an ensemble show. Voyager and the Next Generation aren’t even though all three of them are Star Trek shows with main characters (the captains), but Deep Space Nine just puts more effort into its secondary characters than either TNG or Voyager does, so people are much more likely to describe Deep Space Nine as an ensemble show, even though Sisko is clearly the protagonist.
Wes: So instead of just tossing them a random character in an occasional episode, it’s just like, who are you consistently tracking throughout this, right?
Oren: At some point, people will start calling you an ensemble story just because they feel like your characters are important enough, and that’s really what it means. So there’s not a strict, this-is-an-ensemble-story-and-this-isn’t, or at least not if you want the definition to be particularly useful.
Chris: I also think a lot of ensemble stories, there’s an association with them being a team. Like, you could say other stories are ensemble, but usually if you have a little political intrigue where everybody’s at each other’s throats, I mean, you could call it an ensemble story, but that’s not really the association that has.
Oren: Yeah, I mean, Wikipedia literally lists Game of Thrones as an ensemble show.
I don’t think most people would describe Game of Thrones that way.
Wes: What? That’s like what they say, like ensemble cast, but they mean like all of these actors have equal billing. You know, it doesn’t matter what their characters are doing. We’re paying them the same.
Oren: Right. In Game of Thrones, sure, there are a bunch of characters and, at least early on, you can’t really say who the main character is after Eddard Stark dies. But the reason for that is that they’re all opposing each other, right? There’s pretty clearly a main character in each group and then they’re all fighting each other. And most people wouldn’t describe that as being an ensemble story.
Chris: Just the association we have. There’s a team good and they generally work together, which is I think why a lot of ensemble stories have like a group that’s traveling together or on a ship together, even though that’s actually one of the hardest way to do them, because when you have a group traveling together, they’re always present, like all the time, and that actually becomes harder to balance the characters, in my opinion. Whereas if they are actually, you know, doing their own thing just a little bit, it’s easier to distinguish the characters from each other.
Wes: That’s when the ship is metaphorical, right? What unites them? What is their purpose?
Chris: Right. It’s easier to fade a character out and have them just not present in a scene if people aren’t just together on a ship all the time.
Wes: Unless the ship’s like, really big. Like, I don’t know, they’re lost in steerage. Who knows when they’ll come back.
Chris: Well, there are dolphins somewhere on the Enterprise.
Oren: Or in lower decks, I think they’re beluga whales. (laughs)So, all right, let’s talk about ensemble stories. So, why? Why is an ensemble story? Why would you do this?
Chris: I think it’s mostly because people like to focus on communities.
Oren: I think it’s because people want to tell disparate, fractured stories and they don’t want to admit that, and so they’ve come up with a word to describe it that makes it sound better.
Wes: I think it’s because writers can’t choose which character they like the most, so they do all of them.
Oren: You two are more correct, certainly, but I have encountered a number of people who, when we’re talking about throughlines and having a central story and making sure your story is about something, will be like, well, my story is an ensemble story, so I don’t have to do that.
Wes: Tricked you, Oren.
Oren: I mean, technically, you don’t have to do that because, you know, it’s so far not illegal to do whatever you want in your story. That’s the reason, you know, being an ensemble story will have nothing to do with whether or not your story would benefit from having a single, unified plot that it’s about, but you know! (laughs)
Chris: Yeah, I mean, just to clarify, I mean, we talk about advantages and disadvantages, but frankly, I think that the disadvantages often outweigh the advantages to the point where ensemble stories can be great, but it’s usually better if there’s a reason this story should be an ensemble story. Right? Not that you can’t have them because there are advantages. They offer, again, a lot of relationships, so if you like to focus on social interaction and relationships, if you really want to highlight a community and the struggles of community, rather than just like a single hero who is somehow responsible for everything; if that’s important to you, if you want more representation and a greater variety of characters, that can be a good reason. But it’s trickier and it’s more complex, and so I think you should have a reason to do that in your story because otherwise, how is that cost going to pay off?
Oren: Right. Certainly, you should try to have a better reason than I would like an excuse to fracture my plot.
Chris: Just add all the viewpoints. I have an ensemble cast. It’s five viewpoint characters on their own continent, but that’s okay because I’m using the word ensemble.
Oren: Yeah, they’re an ensemble. A multi-continent ensemble cast, that’s what’s going on here.
Oren: But even discounting the possibility that someone is just kind of using it as an excuse to make bad choices, there are just, in general, costs to making your story more ensemble. It is more difficult and there are advantages to having it more closely focused around a single character. So, you know, because you have to do things, like you have more characters to establish, that takes up time. We’ve talked about before how your audience’s attention is a resource and you don’t have infinite attention, so the more of it you spend establishing different characters and developing them, the less you have for other things.
Chris: And also comprehension, right? It’s like, how much can your audience actually keep track of? Just beyond how much time you have for them to pay attention to things.
Oren: And it can also just be harder to make your characters fit into the story. And this is a problem that particularly tends to come up when people start with a group of characters and are like, I want to tell a story about this group of characters and then try to build a plot around them. Not saying you can’t do that, but you are more likely to run into the problem of now-you-have-some-characters-who-just-don’t-really-fit-in-this-story. This is particularly difficult when you are trying to adapt a role-playing campaign into a novel, which I see happen all the time, because role-playing campaigns have between three to six protagonists and they were all made by randos who probably had very little understanding of any kind of unified plot, assuming there even was one. And so now you’re like, all right, I’m trying to make a plot and we have one character who’s an elf ranger. Okay, cool. That’ll be fun for the woods part of the adventure that I want to write. And then it’s like, all right, then we have this other character and they’re a dwarf fighter. It’s like, all right, well, I can make them friends with the elf ranger. And it’s like, then I have this dragonborn warlock. Why is the dragonborn warlock here? Are there even dragonborn in this world? I don’t really have any place for them. And it just spirals out of control from there.
Chris:Yeah, I want to clarify that the purpose of a character plot-wise is to affect the outcome events, to make choices that steer the plot in a different direction that ultimately change that outcome of the story, and so if you have a character that’s just hanging around a lot, but if you could take them out and nothing else would change about how the story unfolds, that’s not a character that should be there. Right? And so if you think about your total plot, you have maybe all of these different conflicts that have to be solved, and now you have six characters that are all involved in this conflict. Then you have to find a key point for each character to do their thing that makes a difference and it really becomes unwieldy the more characters you have, especially if they’re all around all the time. Besides just making the characters all distinct from each other, which is surprisingly difficult once you go above three.
Oren: Yeah, and also just finding stuff for them to do. Oh, my gosh. Yeah. So here, I got a hot tip for you to start this off.
Wes: Give it to us.
Oren: A good way to dip your toe into the ensemble waters, as it were, which is to have a story scenario where everyone has a job, a thing that they do officially in the story that contributes to whatever the overall goal that they have is. And the simplest setup for this is spaceship crew, and then you have your spaceship crew and everyone on the spaceship crew has a job and they do that job and that is the thing they do that contributes to accomplishing whatever the mission of the spaceship is and that’s your plot, and now you’ve got a very good base for your ensemble cast because you’ve got your pilot and you’ve got your mechanic and you’ve got your captain and your doctor, and there you go. Now you’ve got everyone’s got a thing they do that’s helpful. Right? And then you won’t have to be sitting there being like, OK, OK, how does how does Glorp the alien contribute to this mission? I don’t know. And it’s like, well, Glorp is the doctor, so it’s fine. Now, you know that their base contribution is doctoring and you can build from there.
Chris: And you can do the same thing in any situation. It’s just a lot more obvious how you do it on a spaceship, especially if you’ve been watching lots of Star Trek. I thought it might be worth mentioning why TV shows usually have ensemble casts. Like, why does that make sense for a TV show?
Oren: Because they have all these sexy actors that they want to show off. They’re all very attractive.
Chris: And they all have contracts that say they should be in every episode.
Oren: They do have those.
Chris: That is part of it! It is part of it.
Chris: OK, so first, TV shows are really long. They are a long story. Often novels actually adapt better to TV shows than movies just because movies are much shorter, have much less space, and the length means that they just have more time to develop their characters. Still helpful to start with a main character. So the first episode only has to develop that person. And then you can pace yourself when you’re developing characters. But the point is that it has the time, has more room for that complexity. And then because it’s long and episodic, oftentimes writers of TV shows are looking for more material. Every season they have to come up with more material every episode. And so lots of characters can also come with lots of different storylines. If you have a novel with one strong throughline, that’s actually a liability because it might fragment your plot by having each character kind of do their own thing and not interact with each other. But if you have a TV show with lots of episodes and you need material, yeah, why don’t you just delve into that character’s backstory for an episode? It provides more material. The visuals make a difference because if you can see the characters, it’s easier to tell them apart. You’re not trying to give them all a name that starts with a different letter so that people can recognize them on a page. And because we don’t have thoughts or exposition, visual works need more dialogue to replace that. And so they often want more characters just so that we have more talking happening in each scene that much less likely to have a scene where a character is alone.
Oren: Plus you only have to do half the job of making the character distinctive if you’re writing for a medium that has actors. Because actors are pretty good at their job as a rule. If they manage to get into the high budget productions that we’re all thinking of, those jobs are incredibly competitive, so it’s very unlikely that an actor gets there and doesn’t know what they’re doing. Not impossible, you know, nepotism happens, but usually they still have at least a decent idea of how to figure out a character and that is very helpful for writers because if you’re a novelist, you don’t have that advantage. Or if you’re writing a play for your community theater group, you might not have that advantage either.
Chris: And finally, because again, TV shows, they do vary in exactly how episodic they are. But most of them are to some level episodic. And what that means is they can more easily shift the spotlight so they can have one episode that stars a side character, develops their backstory, and maybe other characters don’t even appear or only appear briefly. That just helps them manage all of the characters and give them some time for development without having to constantly juggle the entire cast every episode, without violating audience expectations, so that can also be really important because if you’re basically restarting the plot every episode, you just have more flexibility about which character is the star.
Oren: Right. You can have, this is a Dax episode, this is a Kira episode, this is a Worf episode. Whereas it would be hard to do that in a novel. I’m not going to say it’s impossible, but very challenging.
Chris: Yeah, I mean you can do it in a novel series and it definitely works better in anthology series. And usually you do something where you have a rotating viewpoint in a series. I mean Wings of Fire is a bit like this, but Wings of Fire actually has a sort of series throughline that just doesn’t always feel very important. So a rotating viewpoint and each character has their own arc in each book to develop. I think it works even better if there’s less of a throughline between the books, because, for instance, in Wings of Fire, Sunny, the character that gets the last book, just feels more important because she gets the last book.
Oren: Yeah, so if you’re going to do that, I mean the character that you choose to end with is going to feel more important. That’s why the Animorphs books, which do something similar, that’s why they made the choice in their last book, normally each book is narrated by a single character, but the last Animorphs book cuts between all six of them. I wouldn’t normally recommend that, but in this particular case I think it worked pretty well. Helped reinforce that this was a story about everyone and it wasn’t like suddenly one of them was the main character.
Wes: That’s cool.
Chris: Animorphs books, there’s 62 books and six characters, six people on team good so does it just continually rotate them in a very predictable pattern?
Oren: Yep, more or less. I haven’t confirmed off the top of my head if it’s the same pattern every time, but they have the same number of books. Now it might mix up the pattern a little bit, like it might start going Jake, Tobias, Rachel, Cassie, Marco, Axe, and then instead of circling back to Jake, the next one might be Rachel again. And then they do them in groups of six, so you can see how they get roughly the same amount of time in the spotlight. Plus some of those books are side stories and prequel novels that don’t involve the main six, but most of them are the main six protagonists. Yeah, and I mean Animorphs is probably not in reach for most people because Animorphs is a series of novellas, but even the writer of Animorphs couldn’t keep up the pace of Animorphs and after about book 25 was working with a team of ghost writers. Now they do a pretty good job. Like there’s no obvious yep-this-is-where-they-started-using-ghost- writers, you know? The plot does get increasingly bizarre as you go further and further in, but I don’t think that had anything to do with the ghost writers, I think that was just that the plot was starting to come apart because of all the things they kept adding to it.
But it’s like by the end of the story, there’s alien Satan running around and it’s like, ‘yeah, that’s making this real weird’, but the ghost writers did a very good job of continuing Applegate’s style, but they were putting out like two novellas a month.
Chris: That’s just wild.
Oren: Yeah, like most writers, even if writing is their full time job, would not be able to maintain that level of output. But on the bright side, I’m not convinced you would need to.
Chris: Yeah, I don’t think you’d be at that level.
Wes: Nope. Not.
Oren: Like there are definitely – like the Animorphs books are fun. I like them. I recently started a big reread and I got stalled out at about 25, because I ran out of audiobooks. But there are a number of these plots that don’t strictly need to be there, right? Like this is clearly a like, hey, we’re making this in the concept of people will buy more of these books and we have a plot that’s very flexible in terms of its timeline, so we can just keep putting in little mini adventures where like today the Yerkes are trying to take over the public swimming pool, and it’s like, well, we better stop them, but like it’s not really going to change much in the longer story if you take that book out and don’t read that one. So the good news is that I think you could probably do something similar and not have to write 64 books or however many it is to get that effect.
Chris: Mhm. Another way that books usually form an ensemble is just slowly over time. And I also think this has some disadvantages, right? But if you have anything from a single novel to a series, over time you develop your side characters and again, you can trickle them in so you’re not spread too thin at once. And then oftentimes more characters are added until the work feels more like an ensemble work. Honestly, I think in a lot of cases this is not actually the best choice.
Wes: Yeah, I was going to say.
Chris: In some cases it works out fine, but I’ve definitely seen more than enough works. That just add characters that don’t need to be there because the writer likes them.
Oren: (sarcastically) Yeah, but if I reach the perfect amount of characters and have a really good ensemble story going, if I add more characters, it will be more ensemble, so I should do that, right? I would just like you to know that my name is Robert Jordan, in case that was any doubt.
Chris: I mean, I definitely think it works best when you already have the characters there because they fulfill important roles in the plot, and over time you just get to know and like them better. Maybe you had a minor antagonist that was important for conflict in the beginning and then you start to sympathize with them. They switch over to team good, right? And that character is around because they have – had – an important role in the plot early and now they can have insight into team evil that they can give the other characters from their time of being a villain, and so they have a purpose now and you’ve just kind of grown attached to them over time. It’s more of a problem when characters start popping out of the woodwork or just seem like they’re really trivial and then suddenly you’re spending lots of time with them and you don’t know why.
Oren: Well, that guy needs a POV now and we can’t get rid of that villain.
Chris: You get a POV and you get a POV!
Oren: The Expanse is actually a pretty good example of that working out well, so the Expanse starts off with Miller and Holden as the two protagonists and this continues even after Miller is dead thanks to the magic of the protomolecule. But over time we build up more character with Holden’s crew, Alex, Naomi, and Amos. That’s kind of a lie. Alex never really gets developed, but Naomi and Amos do. And we add in a couple more characters early and we have one villain who was too cute to stay a villain and she had a very sad backstory.
She becomes a good guy. So we end up with probably six, which is I think a reasonable number for these really long novels. And this takes place over about five books. I’d say it’s about book four or five when you start to think of The Expanse as an ensemble cast. And it’s not like the crew members are bad before then. They’re just not super well developed. Like Naomi is their ship’s mechanic and she’s there and she fixes the ship and Amos is the muscle and he punches stuff. And they have some backstories, but they’re not super important. And then over time we learn about Naomi’s connections to the Belter resistance and then Amos gets a little buddy. And we learn about his tragic backstory and it takes a while, but it feels pretty natural.
Chris: I also think a good example is Discworld. Again, another anthology series that had lots of time and various books star different characters, but we know that these characters are just there in the world, which means that they could potentially pop into any other Discworld book. And because they’re mostly an anthology, they’re pretty flexible about which characters feature in any story. And so you can have a group of witches in the witches books, and they slowly progress and develop over those books. And then maybe you can have another book that’s not so focused on the witches, but a witch appears. And that kind of gives time for all of the people in the world to sort of develop as the books go on. And makes it easy to feature somebody who used to be a secondary character in their own story with their own kind of ensemble cast, etc.
Oren: Yeah, and Pratchett never tries to put all of his characters into one book.
Chris: That would be a disaster. Right?
Oren: It’s like he has a world and his characters move around in it. And so he’ll come up with reasons why. It’s like, well, I want Angua to be in this story, even though this isn’t a City Watch story, so here’s a reason why Angua’s here, I think Angua’s the character’s name. Or, you know, it’s like, I want Granny Weatherwax to make an appearance in this story, even though it’s not a witch story. And, you know, we do stuff like that.
Wes: Yeah, it’s like what they do in Monstrous Regiment, where Vimes and the Watch show up basically at the end. But Vimes doesn’t really say very much. I think maybe like a couple lines. Which is nice, because it’s like what Chris is pointing out with the anthology series. They still feel important because they’ve had their moments, you know? But it’s not their story. But you feel like, I don’t know, like they could participate just by their presence because you know they’re storied and they have a background. So I don’t know. I just think that is a fun approach. More anthologies like that, please.
Chris: I’d also like to add that Pratchett doesn’t like, ‘Hey, look, it’s Vimes, the character from the other story’, make it awkward.
Wes: My favorite one is in Going Postal. Vimes is in it, but he says nothing. He’s just like in the room when veterinari is talking to Moist. And I’m just like, what? It’s just like, what’s going on? But just his presence alone is still kind of cool.
Chris: Yeah, it’s much more natural than like making a big deal about how we’re seeing a character from another story.
Oren: Although it’s worth noting that even TV shows don’t have infinite time. And I have seen a few that just add so many characters that there’s just not time to properly move the-
Chris: Stranger Things! Cough, cough, Stranger Things! Cough, cough, cough.
Oren: Yeah, I mean, Stranger Things. I was actually thinking of Magia Record.
Chris: Oh, yeah.
Oren: The weird quasi-sequel to Madoka Magica.
Chris: So to be fair to Magia Record, it is about magical girl society. So it does need more magical girls. Doesn’t necessarily mean that many magical girls.
Oren: The more that I watch Magia Record, the more that I think it would just be a better show if it just focused on its own characters and didn’t keep cutting over to the Madoka characters. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Madoka characters, but they are not part of this story. It is painfully obvious that they’re not part of the story. And they continue to take up more and more time to the point where in season two, where the Iroha is like, Yachiyo, we have to go and save the other three members of our magical group. I’m like, who are they again? It’s been so long since we’ve seen them.
Chris: Yeah. But even if we take out the original Madoka magical characters, it still has more characters than it needs.
Oren: Right. I mean, for some reason, we meet two different magical girl groups and one of them just kind of disappears for a while. It’s like, why aren’t those the same group of characters?
Chris: Right, so first the main character, Iroha, meets a magical girl group and makes friends with them and you just assume that’s going to be the cast of the show, but no! After a couple episodes spent with them, she just leaves and then joins up with an entirely different group. And they disappear for a while. Now we do kind of see them on and off later, but it’s just a very strange thing. It’s like, oh, I thought those were the important characters, I guess not.
Oren: Like, I mean, I remember those two characters more than I remember most of the characters in her new group, even though like, we haven’t actually seen them as much just because I got used to them first. Right? It’s Rena and Kaede, I think are their names. I don’t remember the name of their leader, unfortunately. But in the new group, the only character whose name I remember is Felicity, because she’s the only character with an English name. Right? And that stands out. But the others, I’m just like, I have no idea who’s in this group. They’re around somewhere, I presume.
Wes: So when would you kill someone? One of the characters.
Oren: Immediately to show the reader I’m serious.
Wes: Exactly. I was thinking about, like, shows that kind of like become more ensemble. The Magicians is not a good TV show, but they did this in one of the later season. Spoilers – they kill Quentin.
Chris: I can’t say I’m sorry about that.
Wes: Lol. Yeah, I know. It was definitely an ensemble like, prior to that point, like they definitely had all kind of come together and been working a lot more, but then Quentin’s death moves it even more into, okay, it’s definitely about all of them now, instead of us beginning the series, following him and him going to the magic school and doing this stuff and meeting these people. So I mean, we had a podcast on killing characters, but I guess if you start with someone and want to become ensemble, death is an answer.
Oren: Death is an answer. That’s good. That’s a good takeaway from this podcast.
Chris: I will also say that they can just ride off into the sunset instead. Like that’s a thing.
Wes: (disheartened)Yeah, I guess.
Chris: Dear Stranger Things writers, you need to get rid of some of your white boys, okay? But if you don’t want to kill them, you might want to kill them because this is still a horror show basically, but if you don’t want to kill them, Jonathan can just go to college, okay? If you don’t want to murder him. He can just go to college and then we don’t have to see him again.
Wes: There you go. (chuckles)
Oren: It doesn’t always have to be death, it could be college. Anyway, so we think we are about out of time because we have too many characters in our podcast ensemble, that’s probably not true, but you know, we ran out of time anyway.
Chris: If you heard any tips that are useful for you, consider filling our tip jar by becoming a patron. Go to patreon.com slash mythgrants.
Oren: And before we go, I want to thank a few of our existing patrons. First, we have Callie Macleod. Then there’s Kathy Ferguson, a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber, he’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo, she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[closing theme ]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreant podcast opening-closing theme, The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?