Ensemble writing is difficult. No doubt you’ve picked up a book with seemingly a dozen characters that look and act the same way. Often you’ll find issues in genre fiction, when all the heroes or heroines come from a distinct background, military for example and they blend into each other, becoming one, vaguely rounded character, instead of six individual people.
That’s why, when writing a large cast, you have to know your characters really well. More importantly than that, however, you have to know how they interact with one another. Here are two exercises you, as an author, can do to ensure your characters are rounded and fully-developed before they ever hit the pages of your book.
Put them in the TV room:
Or at the pool/bar/pizzeria. Throw all half-dozen of your characters into a scenario where they feel comfortable, safe and at ease. I’ll use an example of my own work – I am currently involved in a series of mercenary titles, each starring a military man working for a private sector mercenary organization. I was concerned about the possibility of writing six different versions of the same “military man”, and so after I had interviewed the characters from the first book in depth, and got to know the rest in a shallower capacity, I threw them in a room together.
For this version of the exercise, my characters were sitting around the table in their compound war room, where they spend most of their time preparing for missions and gathering Intel. In the scene, they aren’t doing any of those things, but sitting, around shooting the shit and ragging on each other, a very important way of determining both the individual characters and their relationships.
Now, this scene probably won’t end up in the book. It’s supposed to be a fluffy kind of thing, far more for the author than the reader. But whether or not the audience ever sees it, they will read a far better book for you having written the scene.
In my example, I began to notice character traits before anyone even started speaking. Each of my heroes sat a certain way. One was rigid in his chair, typing away at something as he searched for information – my geek. One propped himself up on the table, tossing an apple in the air, pushing his dark hair out of his eyes to catch it. One character leaned against the wall, watching the scene around him unfold.
Already, their behaviors indicate elements of their personality that I can delve deeper into, understanding who’s the tough guy, the confident guy, the laid back guy. The way we sit and how we behave when we’re not even thinking about it is very indicative of who we are.
And these characters made these poses and actions themselves. For the most part, I tried not to overthink the scene, just put everyone where they seemed to fit, which solidified elements of their personality and helped me move forward on writing the next part of the scene.
Make ‘em talk.
Who has a southern accent – in the case of my book, there is one character with a bit of a drawl. Another character is from Mexico, but he’s been living in America long enough that he has a much lighter accent. Does anyone speak in idioms? Who argues over each other and who sits back to watch? Does the nerd make references to pop culture and geek chic, or is he more of a computer/tech kind of guy. The natural course of dialogue is yet another indicator of who these characters are.
And then, of course, what are they saying? Is the conversation crude and filled with innuendos and middle fingers flying in the air – mine is. Are these guys all business, even when it comes to sitting around with nothing to do? Do they rib each other for being from different branches of the military? Do they tiptoe around certain topics or face them head on?
The answers to these questions will guide you as you move forward in writing the ensemble cast, so don’t be afraid to make the conversation weird, unique or something your characters might not ever have. The exercise is for you, the author, to better understand the nuances and differences between each member of your ensemble, so they feel they are reading individual characters and not carbon copies.
Put them in battle/hospital/detention:
In the first part of this exercise, we made our characters interact while they were relaxed. Now it’s time to put them under a little pressure. Of course, each book is going to have a different circumstance that counts as pressure. My book, for example, has battle scenes on the floor of the Amazon Jungle, whereas your ‘pressure scene’ might just be a detention after class, or the moment a character’s sister goes into labor. The point is, where your characters were relaxed before, they are now on edge and responding to a difficult circumstance or event.
The same notes apply here as above. How do the characters position themselves? Are they at ease in the jungle or tense and swatting at mosquitos? Do they hold their gun like they’re accustomed to its weight, or do they clench it, fingers gripping white with nerves?
Then make them talk – who takes charge of the situation and who pukes into a paper bag? Who compartmentalizes, organizes and makes phone calls? Does anyone curse a blue streak – who scowls at them? Who tries to break the tension and make everyone laugh?
The point here is to push your characters out of their comfort zone and try and make them react. You could have a conversation interrupted by an explosion or a teacher who won’t allow talking in detention. Take this opportunity to challenge your characters, testing them in an uncomfortable situation and see who they fall in line behind and all the ways, big and small, they respond to their environment, their situation and each other.
Ensemble casts can be a lot of fun. If you follow a series where you already know the characters, each book is like returning to an old friend. They certainly pose their challenges, but if you can do it right, it’s worth in the end. So, take the extra time and get to know your characters as a group, be it a family, friends or a collection of strangers. Because the better you know the characters, the realer they will feel to your reader. ♦