Who’s this about, anyway?
Ensemble casts versus lone protagonists
This post is a response to a special request. If you would like to special request a post on a particular subject, please go to icecreamforzombies.tumblr.com and click on “Got a question about writing?” in red under the page’s subtitle, and ask your question. All special requests will be treated in the order in which they were received.
The original question, asked by Jipiman, was “in superheroes, what are the differences and challenges between writing a team vs writing a single hero?”
Actually, the differences and challenges to that specific genre are exactly the same challenge as the more general difference, applicable to most genres, as the difference between writing a lone protagonist or an ensemble cast. While both have their unique challenges, pitfalls, and advantages, it all comes down to one very important aspect of writing fiction: characterization.
The first, very obvious difference between writing the two has to do with your antagonists. This is perhaps the part that is most to the advantage of the single protagonist story. Writing an antagonist that is formidable enough to pose a real threat to your hero, that has your readers truly worried for the outcome of the story, and yet that the protagonist can believably triumph over, can be quite a challenge. It is a delicate balance, one in which you have every chance of making your antagonist so powerful you find yourself in a pickle as to how your hero will finally triumph, or, on the contrary, making him too weak for the struggle to be believable. This can be difficult enough to achieve with just one protagonist to oppose; when you have several, in the case of an ensemble cast, it becomes not only increasingly difficult, but a bit unpredictable as well. After all, you have to factor in not only the individual strengths and resourcefulness of each individual character in the equation, but also the strengths that come from the group dynamic, and the unique dynamics that form between any two or three specific members of the groups. It’s frustrating to plan a scene in a moment of the story where the antagonist is supposed to have a huge victory, only to realize that his plan can easily be defeated by these two characters pooling their specific strengths to achieve something that no single character could have done.
Another difficulty of the ensemble cast is to be able to give the characters distinct voices and personality. Not every author is skilled at building characters or writing good, convincing dialogue, and I believe you should know your strengths. What comes to you in a story first? The idea for the concept? The subject or premise? The setting? Or is it the characters? Their personality, their emotions, their relationships? If you are character-oriented, then writing the ensemble cast is probably not only a second nature to you, but it can be a necessity, since you define your stories by the dynamics and relationships between your characters. People are different. I know it sounds obvious, but I’ve seen too many authors do an archetype or two, add a few variations, and think their characters are unique in their personality. As much as there are different people in the world, there should be different people in your story, who like different things, believe different things, have different codes of conduct, etc. There will be a post dedicated solely to character building in the future, so I will not go any further in this subject, but suffice it to say that your characters should be unique enough, and vivid enough, that your readers should be able to predict, to an extent, how each of them will react, differently, to any given situation, in much the same manner as we can predict the behavior of those people closest to us in real life. This is reflected in dialogue, among many other things. Part of the most repetitive phrases in a book are “he said” or “she said”. I try never to use those sentences. There are many other devices, which I will mention in a subsequent post about dialogue, which can be used to indicate who is talking, but most important of all, who is saying such and such a line in dialogue should be obvious because it should reflect the personality of your characters. When you are less prone to, or less skilled at character creation, it can be best, at first, to limit yourself to a main protagonist until you have mastered this skill more completely.
For the character-driven writer, however, the ensemble cast can be a goldmine of opportunity for deepening the personality of a character. Characters are expressed to the reader through dialogue, and actions, of course, but above and foremost, they are expressed through conflict and their reaction to it. Conflict is achieved, of course, by the many twists and plot points of a story, and by opposition to the antagonist, but the most revealing conflicts are between friends and other characters, because they tend to be everyday life, and are huge opportunities to reveal almost anything about the character and his past, while being independent enough from the overall structure to be placed whenever there are calmer moments, in the order in which they are most useful to the author. This can, of course, be done with single-protagonist plots, but the dosage of secondary characters can be a little more difficult to manage. Secondary characters can’t just pop up one time when you need them, they have to be carefully woven into a plot, so that their presence is not only justified but organic when you need them. Again, an entire post will be dedicated to secondary characters later on.
Personally, I’m a big fan of the ensemble cast because I’m exceedingly character-driven as an author. My characters are the little imaginary friends that follow me every day, and I frequently suffer from end-of-the-story blues because I know I’m going to miss them when I’m done writing the story. That being said, some stories need to have a single protagonist to unfold correctly, so it’s important to know what your story needs. Every character needs to have his or her place in the narrative, and if they don’t they should not be there, because they will dilute the story, and will not be appreciated to their just value.