Generating Characters for an Ensemble Cast

Matt Bird joins us again for a look at stories that have an ensemble cast of characters. We brainstorm how to go about generating multiple main characters, focused vs. unfocused ensemble stories, and polarized traits vs. full dimensionality. Plus, a digression into a racially-related subtopic helps make this the most controversial episode yet. See you in the comments!

Link: Matt Bird’s mind-expanding Cockeyed Caravan blog.

We recorded this before noticing that there are some new reviews for us on iTunes.
Many thanks to Carol G., William Konigsberg, and Sunny123Rose for the recent kind words. It encourages us to keep this endeavor going!

If you’d like to add your review, please go to iTunes and write a quick review. Launch the iTunes app, enter “Narrative Breakdown” in the search box, click on our podcast title, and then scroll down to “Write a Review”.

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More about this show, for new listeners:

In The Narrative Breakdown, Cheryl Klein, James Monohan, and other guest co-hosts discuss storytelling tips and techniques of interest to any writer, student, or fan of quality creative writing, screenwriting, playwriting, fan fiction, English literature, etc. Each episode, Cheryl and James draw upon their respective experiences in publishing and filmmaking to analyze popular novels, movies, plays, television shows, short stories, and song lyrics. Featuring various co-hosts and writers, as well as material from Cheryl Klein’s book ‘Second Sight’ and James’ iPhone / iPad app ‘The Storyometer.’


10 Responses to “Generating Characters for an Ensemble Cast”

  1. Carole Gaudet October 4, 2012 at 9:43 am #

    Looooving this episode, you two. Thank you! Bravo!

    Love the point about different ensemble characters filling the different roles of head, heart and gut — and then maybe adding in faith. I’m joyfully revisiting all my fave ensemble works and figuring out who’s who.

    Artemis Fowl, for example:

    Head: Artemis, Foley
    Heart: Holly. №1?
    Gut: Butler, Root
    Mulch Diggums: an anomaly? He’s smart, but he’s also about gut (all that eating and passing gas), and the other characters have to play to his ego (heart) to get him to cooperate.

    What’s also fun in ensemble pieces is to see characters get stretched into roles they don’t normally play. So Artemis, the boy genius, has to develop both his heart and his gut as the series progresses.

    Very interesting, too, about when you add race to an ensemble cast. It seems like every one of the roles (head, heart, gut, spirit) plays into a stereotype. Or, if you deliberately try to avoid the stereotype, it comes off as false. I’m struggling with that one myself. Seems like the solution is, as you say, to fully develop all the characters. I guess that means showing us how each character calls on each one of the 4 roles/ways of being.

    I’m starting to outline an action/adventure YA with a multi-racial, diverse ensemble, cast. I want one character to be gay, but his arc will not be a coming-out story, not predominantly, anyway. He’s just there, and being gay is one thing about him. So — who’s going to be gay? It’s a tough choice, because then that character almost becomes a stand in for “what it’s like to be a gay Latino teen” or “what it’s like to be a gay Asian teen” , etc. Maybe the white teen is gay, but for some reason, that feels too easy? I’m not sure why. I should probably see what Lee Wind has to say on this one!

  2. Bridget October 6, 2012 at 11:01 am #

    This was the first Narrative Breakdown episode I’ve listened to and I also found it quite engaging and entertaining!

    The conversation regarding the depth of characters really caught my attention. It first helped me realize why I too got bored of Glee after a couple seasons as they kept adding characters and lost the opportunity to go into more depth with the already existing characters. Your conversation also made me consider why writers/authors/editors apply depth or not to their characters in ensemble stories.

    Take reality shows for instance. “Reality” shows that are supposedly showing us authentic portrayals of people and their lives seem to be notorious for focusing on the surface level of people’s personalities and motivations by editing and giving perspectives to focus on one or two attributes of someone, i.e. the jealous one, or the super geeky one, or the party guy. It fascinates me why so many people enjoy watching such shows while I get frustrated with the superficiality of it all.

    Whereas in shows like The Wire, where we get a deeper sense of many of the characters, there is no clear “good or bad” character or few if any who fit any typical stereotype, making them “neutral” as you described. To me that is far more intriguing and more authentic to the world in which we live. Frankly, I feel like such writing offers a genuine missionary opportunity to open peoples minds into the common humanity of us all. Without the simple identifying labels we can attach to certain people our minds are unable to make a decision about them…unable to judge them. So to cultivate a better world for all of us to live in – more ensemble stories with depth, please! :) (Thank you for helping me to articulate this request!)

    Just as a side note regarding Downton Abby – because all the characters share the same work and home environment it seems ideal for being able to go into the depth of so many of the characters. Wouldn’t you say?

    Playing the Head, Heart, and Gut game with the recent movie The Master:
    The Master = head and the heart
    Freddy = gut/groin. heh!

    Looking forward to more!

  3. Jyoti October 11, 2012 at 10:27 am #

    Can you help me? I’m trying to rebmmeer the title and author of a mystery I once read.A detective witnesses a woman shoot her husband in an English country inn. She is the step mother of a boy that disappeared many years ago. There is a young girl named Abby in the book who nearly gets killed. Turns out (hate to spoil it for you if you haven;t read it) that the husband had killed the son to hold his wife ransom for money and she finally knew for sure.This is killing me! Please help!

    • James October 12, 2012 at 8:25 pm #

      Maybe Cheryl’s Twitter followers will be able to help. You can tweet her @chavelaque Good luck!

  4. Terrell Sanders February 1, 2013 at 2:45 pm #

    I’m an avid researcher and learner (as I suspect many writers are) and love to get my hands on any kind of material, written or spoken, that will help me refine my craft.

    Since picking up Orson Scott Card’s book on SF/F writing nearly twenty years ago, I’ve probably had about a dozen “WOW” moments when something I read or heard snapped an idea into place in my head and shot my writing forward by a giant leap. This episode was one of those moments. Thanks.

    By the way, I see that you haven’t posted any episodes since Oct. 2012. I sincerely hope you’ll consider moving forward. Your podcast is very enjoyable and educational.

  5. JuicyWet the First February 12, 2013 at 11:42 pm #

    Loved the ensemble podcast and I’m a first time listener. I’m a black, aspiring novelist. About the racism question in your podcast – there was none. It was just the the facts and how things are (thank you for not holding back), but I understand your concern about the audience sensitivity. My first novel has a tertiary main character that is struggling with his alien race’s culture that is similar to US street culture – disenfranchised, angry, etc. – and he is the only black main character in the book. In addition, this alien culture is purposely written unfavorable to add to his cautionary tale and conflict. Since his culture is not supposed to be tied to a color of a race, I’ve been going back and forth making him a white, ginger male to a Indian (from India) to a black male. However I keep going back to black, because, out of all of the characters in my ensemble novel, he is based on me the most. I got a strong feeling he will upset people, when that is not my intention, but there is almost no way around it. Geez, if people could connect Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars to blacks, which I did not see until someone said something, what hope does my character has?

    BTW, I listened to this on iTunes and I’ve tried to leave a comment there, but it wouldn’t let me – tried many times. That might be why you have so little amount of comments there.

    • James March 7, 2013 at 3:33 pm #

      Thats for this important feedback. I imagine we’ll be returning to this topic again in future episodes. The fact that your comment wasn’t showing up was our fault. But for the rest of the year we hope to be back in action!

  6. Bryce June 18, 2013 at 5:40 pm #

    Head/Heart/Gut – What about the the chipmunks? :)


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