Basic Tips To Write Better Ensemble Casts

Another fine article originally contributed by Alex Feynman, and edited a bit by Syera.

Avoid homogeny, if possible. It's all too easy to create an entire group of characters who are almost just alike. Whether they're the same race/species or just have the same main interest, they often come out as cookie-cutter clones. Sometimes this is acceptable - characters from a racially homogeneous society will likely be of the same race, and characters whose lives center around a club will be interested in whatever that club is about - but unless them being so similar is relevant to the plot or setting, leave it out. If your character is a team of superheroes, for example, there's no reason for every one of them to have great dress style - and if they live in a racially diverse area, there's no good reason for all of them to be white.

Remember - you are allowed to intentionally create a minority character to make your cast more diverse. Many people mistakenly think that if they try to make their cast more diverse, they're committing tokenization. Not true. Tokenization is when a character is introduced solely to make the cast more diverse, and the character ends up poorly developed, full of stereotypes or just plain bland and unnecessary. A fully-fledged character who is on equal footing with the others, who is intentionally created as a minority, and whose minority status is just one facet of the character's being is not a token. Put simply, a token is a character who exists to be a minority, not a character who exists and is also a minority. Of course, if you really want to do the right thing, don't stop at one.

Avoid the "one of each" effect. One common counter to an overly homogeneous cast is to create a cast SO evenly-balanced that there is only one character with each set of interests. In fact, outside of the one thing that brings them together, they will have absolutely nothing in common. In real life, you can usually pick any two or three out of a group and find some trait that they (and only they, out of the whole group) share.

Happy/grumpy/perky/any mood is not a personality. If you've ever had a group of friends, you've probably noticed that not one of them is angry all (or even most) of the time. Likewise, most people aren't going to be happy all (or even most) of the time. There are exceptions, but even with those exceptions, that mood is simply a reaction to their surroundings - not a defining personality trait that tells you who they are as a person. Someone who's cheerful can be a bully who gets happiness from abusing others. Someone who's unhappy or angry much of the time can be very thoughtful and caring, and made frustrated by the cruelty they see around them.

Leave out the Tagalong. Often, stories with ensemble casts add one character who isn't REALLY part of the group. This character is usually subservient to another character - a pet or younger sibling, for example - and the character's sole purpose is to "tag along" and add a cute factor/comic relief/whatever. Tagalongs have no real lives of their own (except for the occasional episode where they have a brief adventure away from everyone else and come right back afterward), and rarely, if ever do anything that actually progresses the plot. Depending on how it's done, these characters range from pointless to creepy to downright sad. Don't do it.

Supporting characters are okay, and are, in fact, encouraged. The difference between a tagalong and a supporting character is that while the the latter might sometimes come along for the ride without really being part of the group, the supporting character has an actual life when not out adventuring with the main characters.

Avoid the Designated Wrong Person. You know how some shows have that one character who is always wrong, to the point where it seems that being wrong is this character's entire purpose? Yeah, don't. Instead, let everyone be wrong and have to swallow humble pie sometimes.

Keep them as an ensemble, not one or two characters with a supporting cast. If you're writing about a group of characters who are supposed to be equal, keep them equal in their ability to progress the plot and in their importance to the story. Don't make it all about one or two characters from the whole bunch while everyone else serving as support cast/filler material. For example, don't write a story that alleges to be about an entire team of superheroes, yet make one the Secret Lost Prince/ss while the others are simply the sworn guardians of said royalty. Don't write a story that's presented as being about the adventures of a whole crew of space explorers, but only ever give any serious personal focus to one or two of them.

If you want to write a story where one character is more important, go ahead and do it. Just don't make a pretense of all characters being equal when it's fairly obvious who we're really rooting for.

Remember, your audience needs bonding time with each individual member of the cast. If you introduce a large cast of characters all at once, you run the risk of overwhelming your audience with too many characters to get to know and come to care about. This is especially true if you're dealing with an episodic format where you're running up against a time limit. Consider adding your characters one or a few at a time (eg, per episode or chapter) so you have more time to showcase some of their individual strengths, quirks, and vulnerabilities. If that's not really possible, writing chapters, story arcs, or episodes that focus on individual characters and let us get to know them can be good for this, too.

See Also

Ensemble Cast Development Questions
Basic Tips To Get More Racial Diversity In Your Writing
Basic Tips To Avoid Tokenism
Exercises To Improve Your Character Writing & Roleplaying Skills
Simple Tips To Put Yourself In The Shoes Of Characters Who Aren't You
Reasons Your Character Might Be Boring
Dropping In Characterization Without Dragging The Story

The Case For Killing The "Blank Slate" Character
Grail Character Syndrome: How To Be The Center Of Attention And Yet Be A Total Bore
Notes & Musings On Writing Cute Characters
On Writing & Roleplaying Characters Who Are Good Leader Material
Basic Tips To Write Better (And More Likeable) Badasses
Basic Tips To Write Better Geniuses, Scientists, & Intellectuals
On Writing Likeable & Useful Sidekicks
On Writing Comedy & Comic Relief
On Writing Misfits, Loners, & Malcontents
On Writing & Roleplaying Wise Characters

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