What is an Ensemble Cast?
The following quote from reader, Paulie Cera, appeared in the comments section for Graphic Novel Script Format:
I was curious what your thoughts were regarding an ensemble cast of essential characters when writing the plot and/or story. How do you keep the story from getting too bloated, when there’s a few plot points & story arcs going on, each person with a their own back story that eventually intertwine? –Paulie Cera
Thanks for the question, Paulie!
I love ensemble casts. When done well, an ensemble cast can be a really interesting approach to telling a story. A great example of a graphic novel with an ensemble cast is American Born Chinese.
The trouble I have found in discussing “ensemble casts” is how that term is used.
WHAT IS AN “ENSEMBLE CAST”?
TVTropes.org provides a solid definition of “Ensemble Cast”:
In most cases, the protagonist is a defining element of fiction. It is he whom the plot revolves around and, usually, the one the audience is supposed to empathize with most.
However, some shows decide to do something different—there is no protagonist. The plot and its narrative don’t revolve around a single, “most important” main character. Instead, it shares a cast of characters with (almost) equal screentime and importance to the plot. This is called an Ensemble Cast. This type of narrative is interesting because it highlights the relations between different characters by taking away the importance of a single character.
In addition, it allows the writers to focus on different characters in different episodes freely, without worrying about giving the main character not enough screen time.
On the other hand, it can also result in a work that lacks focus and drive. Something must unite the events other than the main character. Most of these works therefore fix on a restricted setting and stick to it like glue.
In other words, a story with an ensemble cast is a collection of stories which may or may not interact with each other but are grouped based upon a single unifying theme (like the struggle for love, power, acceptance, etc.) and possibly a single unifying narrative motif (like setting, color, or a specific item, etc.). The collected stories are NOT grouped in support of a single story featuring a protagonist. For example: American Born Chinese, Magnolia, Nashville, Ragtime.
Unfortunately, I have often heard the term “ensemble cast” misused to mean: A cast of characters, but often larger than normal and arguably more interesting.
The threat of this misinterpretation is that writers assume that because they have an “ensemble cast” (which they don’t) all their many interesting characters need to be in the story (which is false). This leads to a story that is bloated and boring.
So, how do you know if you have an ensemble cast?
Assess whether you have a collection of stories about a single unifying theme, or if you have a large cast of characters supporting a single story. A simple way you could check is to look at the Eight Character Roles that are present in a story with a traditional, non-ensemble cast. If you can group all your characters into these eight roles, then you have a single story.
HOW TO KEEP YOUR ENSEMBLE-CAST STORY FROM BLOATING
“How do you keep the story from getting too bloated?” Well… it’s hard. But the solution (whether you have an ensemble cast or not, actually) is simple: editing.
If you have an ensemble cast, then all the stories are grouped together intentionally to show the many different interpretations of a unifying theme through conflicting interactions. How much your characters must do to bring resolution to those conflicts will determine how big your story must be.
Once you figure out what is needed to bring resolution to the conflicts, then you edit out everything that is not needed (also, it goes without saying, edit out everything that is not about the unifying theme). If a lot is needed to bring resolution to the conflicts, then your story could be very, very long.
George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels are often more than a thousand pages each because his theme (the struggle for power) is presented through an insanely large war. The context of the war allows all the little conflicts within each of his many storylines play out. Eventually, all these storylines will collide or combine and bring resolution, but since winning this particular war is difficult to do, there’s reason for all the time spent chronicling the struggles of each character.
An ensemble story of any size, however, feels bloated when there’s either no conflict (drama for the sake of drama), the conflict at hand has nothing to do with the unifying theme (unfocused storytelling), or when the drama is unnecessarily repetitive (when two or more storylines feature characters who deal with the same thematic problem in the exact same thematic way, but the storylines are dressed in different circumstances).
In all these cases, editing will solve the problem.
(Note: Some readers like a rambling story, where not everything is pared down and focused on unifying thematic conflicts that must be resolved. However, that is a niche readership, so my advice is intended for the creation of mainstream stories.)
Editing is a HUGE topic, but I hope the advice above is a helpful place to start.