Wednesday, July 14, 2010

We go together like gramma lamma lamma

First person to identify that lyric gets an extra for the first day of the next INSANITY!

Today's Write Away Wednesday focuses on the ensemble cast.

Simply put, an ensemble cast is a story with multiple MCs (Main Characters) or the cast of characters in that story. Ensemble is the French for together, so it makes sense. The term "ensemble cast" really applies to television, but it sounds so much better than polyphony, which is the word for the same thing in literature.

These ideas define an ensemble cast for me (although others may say different):

- There must be at least 3 MCs (If you have only 2 MCs it's an intertwined narrative)
- Each MC must have the story told from their point of view
- There should be more than one major plotline
- MCs should be of around the same importance to the story

It's easy to see a book with many characters and think, "That must be an ensemble cast!" But please keep in mind the rules I listed above.

Let's look at LOTR: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING as an example.
There are at least 9 characters of major importance in the film, (I don't think it happens so much in the book) but the plot really follows Frodo. And no matter how sexy Orlando Bloom makes being an elf look, the others are really just a supporting cast.

On the other hand, I consider THE TWO TOWERS an ensemble cast. You've got several plot lines going on: Frodo and Sam, Aragorn's group, Merry and Pippin. Frodo remains the most important, but now, if one of the other groups fails, his quest could fail too.

Some other examples of Ensemble Casts
True ensemble casts exists in films where a theme is more important than a single character.
CRASH (about racism)
LOVE ACTUALLY (about love)
VALENTINE'S DAY (which just happens to be the biggest ensemble cast Hollywood has ever seen)

By the same token as FOTR, I would not call OCEAN'S ELEVEN an ensemble cast.

This is where ensemble casts thrive. Because tv series are spread out over such a long period of time, ensemble casts became popular to avoid having to deal with the issues caused by losing your star. Also they promote longevity for a series. When one character's plot line gets stale you can focus on the others for a while.

I don't think books support ensemble casts as well as visible media, so polyphonies appear less often. I've also found that in recent times, polyphonies seem to occur primarily in children's literature.

More characters? What's not to love? Before you run off and pen an ensemble cast, there are a few things you should remember.

1. It's harder to keep track of more characters. Not just for you- in fact as a writer, you probably have the aid of a spreadsheet or something- but for the reader. I just finished an ensemble cast, and I find myself flipping back through the book several times, reading to remember who was who's son, and who said what, etc. On the wriitng end of the equation, it's harder to make 7 distinct characters than it is to make 3. When it's not done well, characters either end up being too much like one another or they end up being caricatures.

2. Too many plot lines. For heaven's sake, you can not have 7 people run off and do 7 different things. BRAIN! IMPLODING!

3. You spend less time with each character, so they have to be that much more loveable to pull people in. Unless your story is a plot driven one (see the list of ensemble cast films).

Honestly, I'd just recommend you stay away from writing more than 2 MCs, 3 at the most. I really love a good ensemble cast. CRASH is one of the most mind-blowing films I've ever watched and I love LOVE ACTUALLY, but so often (especially outside tv) ensemble casts are done so poorly it's laughable, or at least cryworthy.


Tawna Fenske said...

One of my favorite books is Judy Blume's SUMMER SISTERS. I'd have to count, but there must be at least a dozen POVs in that book, and every single one of the characters is compelling and beautiful. A truly fine ensemble cast, assembled by the master!


Marsha Sigman said...

Ok those lyrics sound like the song from Grease but I think it was Ramma lamma lamma.

I could never do more than two pov's. Anyone who can has my complete admiration! It's hard to keep up with plots and fleshing out the characters. I totally agree with those movies though, Crash was so hauntingly good and Love Actually is one of my favorite movies. Makes me want to squish Hugh Grant and stuff him in my pocket to carry with me

Claire Dawn said...

Tawna, when it's well done, it's great. Not everyone can, though.

Marsha, ditto on Hugh Grant! And you've got an extra point for the next INSANITY!