Now the first thing you may note about a book that has a true ensemble cast, is that there isn't really a clear protagonist. Having an ensemble cast is different from simply having a large number of supporting characters. In a true ensemble each character has to able to be seen individually and to have a clear purpose and goal within the story. While a reader maybe drawn to one character more than another, all of the characters should be essential in their own way.
Benefits of the Ensemble Cast
Why have an ensemble cast? Other than the fun and exciting challenge of creating indepth and interesting characters there are many good reasons. Some of these include:
- Less pressure to create a protagonist that all of your readers will love and adore. By having the ensemble cast each character is able to express individual flaws and trouble spots as well as their own strengths. Even if your reader doesn't like one of the cast, the others will probably more than make up for it.
- Each character adds their strengths and abilities to the story so you aren't having to create some wonderfully amazing character that is too good for words. A problem that is completely overwhelming for one of your characters can be tackled by the group and each character can still feel realistic.
- The group dynamics add a very real and human element to the story and allow for back and forth dialogue and character development.
- Because each character has their own motive and background it gives a lot of room for exploration and side plots. This can add a great deal of depth and interest for your story (or detract from the main plot and bore your reader to death if done poorly, but the same could be said of any writing really).
For every advantage there is usually a disadvantage and the same is true of ensemble casts. Some of the disadvantages can include:
- The writer beginning with a strong group dynamic and by mid-way through the plot have focused down to one or two characters leaving the rest just kind of drifting. If the reader connected with one of the characters that gets sidelined they may very well not want to finish the story.
- The group dynamic may make no sense. If the reader can't visualise this group of individuals ever getting together for any reason, and can't accept that this group would work together, they aren't going to accept the story. Clumsy dialogue and chance encounters won't hold the story together if the characters just aren't connecting.
- The writer's need to include enough background details about each character may begin to overwhelm (or bore) the reader. This particularly becomes problematic when the writer feels the need to reintroduce the character every time they enter a scene.
- Trying to find some sort of meaningful role for each of the characters in the final conflict is sometimes troublesome and some writers go to great length to come up with distractions for their characters to deal with and it all becomes very messy.
I do feel I need to admit that I've never been a huge fan of the ensemble cast. I like a protagonist that I can latch onto as a reader. The closest I've come to enjoying ensembles are through David Eddings (and yes, he does have a character that is distinguished from the others in almost all of his stories - however, each of the ensemble cast are essential to the plot and are given full motivation and background so you could argue that it is an ensemble).
I'd love to know your opinion on the ensemble cast and if you've read a book that has used it well. Share your view point.