Writing characters that work together as an ensemble cast, and that develop together throughout the story, is a real art.
It’s about contrast, balance and psychology.
Use the following 8 tips to create an ensemble cast of characters who grow together throughout the story.
8 Tips For A Strong Ensemble Cast Of Characters That Develop Together
1: Characters must have a life (a backstory)
When writing characters in fiction, backstory is more like back-bone, the foundation on which all else is built.
In order for characters to truly be alive they need to… yup, have a life. The character’s life is their backstory—everything that has happened to them up to their first appearance in the novel. Without a backstory the character has no motives, no reasons for being, no real essence. With a rich backstory characters come to life on the page / screen with their own motives, their own passions, their own beliefs, and their own ways of thinking and acting.
2: Characters must have a ruling passion
Have you ever noticed how attractive people with passions are? Whenever someone tells you that they have one deep passion that they will do anything to achieve, you immediately want to get to know them, you’re intrigued by who they are, you find their mission / goal exciting. Same with characters.
A character might have a number of different passions. But they have one singular ruling passion. That passion is their reason for being. It’s the objective they will do anything to achieve.
Think about the classic movie Aladdin. Aladdin will do absolutely anything in order to be with the princess he loves. He’ll risk his life, he’ll turn himself into a prince, he’ll fight an evil wizard. His love of Jasmin is his ruling passion and he will do absolutely anything to be with her. That makes for exciting storytelling.
So, how to write a good story: Give a character a ruling passion, one passion so strong they will literally do anything to make it happen.
3: A Character’s Passion Must Be Strong
Your passion is going to motivate your character’s every action and so will heavily influence what they do, thereby having a major effect on the plot. But that doesn’t mean that the passion has to be morally correct, defendable, or even in-line with the outcome of the story.
In A Christmas Carol, Dickens gives Scrooge a very negative ruling passion: his ruling passion is to keep his money for himself. Scrooge fights for this passion all throughout A Christmas Carol. He fights people who ask for charitable donations. He fights his family. He even fights the spirits, all for his ruling passion. In fact, you could argue that the entire conflict in A Christmas Carol is between Scrooge’s negative passion (his greed) and the characters who want him happy and socially conscious (his family / the spirits).
So, how to write a good story: Understand that a character’s ruling passion can be negative so long as it motivates the character to act strongly in ways that are relevant to the premise.
4: Character conflicts come from all different angles
Writing high conflict stories requires that different characters come from different angles, ending up clashing head-to-head.
Conflict, of course, is at the heart of storytelling. But how do you get conflict? It’s the same in storytelling as it is in physics: you have two objects hurtling into one another at various angles. Those “angles”, by the way, are crucial. The angle at which one character collides with the other determines how fierce their conflict will be.
In some stories two characters will collide head on. This is true of virtually any sports story. Rocky, for instance. Rocky and Apollo Creed both want to be World Champion. But there’s only one belt, and the only way to win it is to fight against one another. There’s no if, ands, or buts about it, the two are in head-on confrontation, and conflict cannot get too much more heated than that.
Conflicts, however, are not always head-on. They come from a variety of different angles. In The Exorcist, for instance, you have a large number of different conflicts. Chris McNeil (the mother) is in direct head-to-head conflict with the devil—one wants to protect Regan the other to possess her. But how about the other characters? Chris McNeil is somewhat in conflict with the doctors. They both want to help Regan but because of their beliefs they’re at odds about how to do it. This becomes a sort of side-on conflict. And then there’s very minor conflicts like the one between Father Merrin and Lt. William Kinderman (the cop). They both want to help Regan and they’re both willing to get along to a degree, but differences in their professions interfere.
Different angles of conflict are important in order to give a three dimensional feel to a story. Head-on HERO VS VILLAIN conflicts make for flat reading. By having various conflicts coming together at various angles a story becomes much more realistic and gains a great deal of depth.
5: Every character has an objective
When I attended acting school I learnt that perhaps the single most important part of acting is to give your character an objective, something they must achieve. The same principle is equally important to writing characters.
An objective gives a character momentum and makes them act. Without an aim they would do nothing. Same as in real life, right? However, unlike real life, characters will usually only have one goal. The reason for this is that it makes the character’s actions easier to comprehend and also makes them more active. A person with a singular goal is someone who will go far.
That goal might gradually change over the course of the story. Aragorn, for instance, just wants to live freely in the world without being king. But then he cannot do so because Sauron and his minions are taking over Middle Earth. He then wants to fight Sauron’s army by helping Frodo and Sam. Then he wants to fight Sauron’s army head-on. Finally he realises why he has be king. His aim morphs.
Importantly, however, a character’s aim will stay in alignment even as it changes? Aragorn wants to be free to roam Middle Earth as his own man. But he can’t do that if Sauron takes over. So now his principal aim can only be achieved if Sauron is out of the picture. His aim becomes to help Frodo and Sam so he can have his first aim (to be free). The aim changes, but it is parallel to where it started.
So, how to write a good story: Give every character an objective.
6: Create a central point at which all character objectives aim
Crucial to your plot is the idea that all characters have an objective that forces them into conflict.
To write a great story you want your characters to come together at some point. You want some characters to team-up, others to fall in love, some to hate each other, but you want them all to be involved in the same story. You want them to collide.
In order to make every one of your characters collide you should create a central point for their objectives. That sounds trickier than it is. So let me continue with my example from Lord Of The Rings.
In Lord Of The Rings, obviously, you’ve got the One Ring, which everyone in the world wants for different reasons. Some want to own it. Some want to destroy it. Some want to give it to Sauron. Some fear it. Some love it. But absolutely every single character in Lord Of The Rings has an aim that relates to the One Ring. And so they will all collide. Some will form allies (those who want to destroy it), some will be enemies (those who want to destroy it VS those who want to give it to Sauron), some will become rogues who interfere constantly (Smeagul, who wants to steal it for himself), but everyone will be brought together by the One Ring because their aims are all fixed on that central point (the ring).
Another example. Let me go back to The Force Awakens, which I’m currently in love with. Luke Skywalker is missing, and if he returns the Jedi will return. The entire battle hinges on Luke returning or not. So right from the off, everyone on the Rebels or First Order is already aligned around a central point (Luke). Then there are other ways in which Luke creates a central node. Rey, for instance, has to find him so he can train her. Leia wants Luke back for both personal and political reasons. Even R2D2 is desperate for Luke to be back. Luke is the one central node around which all else will converge. And because of this, all characters will come together either as allies, enemies, lovers, or in some other way.
7: Opposing forces must be equal in strength
What’s the worst sports match you’ve ever seen in your life? Probably ones in which a very powerful team takes on a very weak team. Because in these instances there’s rarely any real conflict, it’s just a case of watching the inevitable as the strong beat the weak. That’s why boxing promoters always try to book two fighters who are equal in strength: it makes a better fight.
Same is true for any story. If you had Superman VS a nerdy kid, obviously you’re not going to get a great conflict. But you could make great stories out of either these characters. For that to happen, Superman needs Lex Luther and “nerdy kid” needs someone of his equal strength and skill to create a good battle.
But, let me ask another question. What was the most exciting sports match you’ve ever watched? Probably one in which someone thought to be too weak (an underdog) actually found the strength to defeat the strongest team. So even though strong VS weak is the worst kind of conflict. Strong VS (weak character who found the strength to become strong, can be one of the best types of story.
So, how to write a good story: Either start with two opposing forces that are equal in strength, OR start with an underdog who finds the strength to BECOME equal to the opposition.
8: Lock your characters in the crucible
Generally you want your characters to go through hell before the end. Makes for exciting storytelling. The problem is, why on Earth would your character subject themselves to torment? The answer is “The Crucible”.
The crucible is anything that locks your characters into the battle in a way they cannot escape. In The Hunger Games, for instance, Katniss Everdeen is put in a battlefield in which only one person is supposed to survive. There’s no way out. Either Katniss kills or she dies. Simple. She’s put under lock and key. And because of that she cannot escape, so any questions regarding “Why would she do this” are instantly silenced.
But some crucibles are less obvious. Why, for instance, does Jim Garrison risk his life and his family to fight for truth in Oliver Stone’s sublime JFK? Because his entire life is about truth and justice. Those qualities mean more to him than anything in the entire world. For him to let the JFK assassination go untried would be to abandon his every belief.
There are lots of ways in which you can lock characters in a crucible. But for the most part they fall into four categories:
- They are literally locked up somewhere: In The Maze Runner, for instance, the characters a locked in a maze and their only chance of survival is to get out.
- Their lives are on the line: If your characters lives are on the line obviously they will do anything to succeed in their missions.
- It involves real love: Whether familial love, love of friends, or romantic love, people will do anything for the ones they truly love.
- Their beliefs are on the line: You only need to consider The Crusades to see what people will do for personal beliefs. Put your character’s deepest beliefs on the line and they will do anything.
And for the complete package, you can always put those four elements together, which The Hunger Games does.