The question today is which works better, the ensemble cast or the hierarchical?
Like all such conundrums, the answer can be debated ad nauseum, and such debates are usually stopped only by the answer: it depends!
Ensemble characters work best in television or movies. They can work in mainstream novels if the writer is skilled and insightful. Hierarchical characters work well in any medium, any time, any place.
In the past 30-40 years, modern society has gone through a significant anthropological shift. Young people cluster together in packs of friends. They perhaps rely on these friends more than a traditional family unit with parents. In the past decade, with the rise of children’s and teen fiction as the hottest ticket in publishing, there’s a trend to distribute the story among the players.
Even middle-grade stories now feature multiple viewpoints, and this makes the reading experience more complex and nuanced.
No problem there. However, I think it’s important to realize that despite this new complexity, the balance should not be equal.
A fictional cast of characters still operates more effectively in a hierarchy of importance.
In other words, which character will be the focus of your story?
No matter whether you’re writing for adults or children and no matter how many characters are grouped around the protagonist, there should still be a starring role.
I always wince when I hear someone refer to the positive characters as “the protagonists.”
In my world of fiction, there is only one protagonist. I don’t think all the friends or companions of the protagonist should get equal billing or have equal importance. My casts of fictional characters don’t operate in a democracy. Thomas Jefferson’s immortal words in the Declaration of Independence are part of my national heritage, part of my everyday reality. But not in my fiction.
In classical story design–which is the template for most commercial fiction–all characters are not created equal.
One protagonist. Over all.
The friends/companions are simply that. They should fall into the category of secondary roles. They are sidekicks.
For example, if we look at J.K. Rowlings’s triad, we have Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger. They are close friends. They work as a team. They each have strengths and weaknesses. They are each, in his or her own way, heroic. Each character is important to the story. Each character has a fan base.
But Harry is the star.
No matter how much he depends on his companions and their help, readers need to have the feeling that Harry could probably succeed alone–although it would be three times more difficult.
Every story in commercial fiction needs a leader. This character gets the spotlight, the major attention. This character drives the story from start to finish. This character is not rescued. This character is the one, ultimately, that stands alone against the antagonist in the final showdown.
The real world always tries to push people into herds. Follow the group. Don’t stand out. Don’t try to make a difference. If you speak up, you’ll be fired. Don’t get involved. Don’t outshine your friends and make them feel bad.
Fiction isn’t about that mindset of mediocrity. It’s about standing tall, stepping forward, taking the risk, making the attempt, accepting the danger of sacrificing yourself to help others in trouble or to save the day.
That’s the definition of heroism. It’s what makes a protagonist larger than life.
Due to my training and personal taste, whether I read genre or mainstream, I want a star to latch onto for the duration of the story.
It’s why I haven’t read past the first volume of George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series. A bazillion people love his work, and Mr. Martin is an interesting and pleasant man in person. But I still want a protagonist. He doesn’t give me one, so I read authors who do.
Again, having one character be the star isn’t the only way to write a story. It doesn’t mean you can’t have lovable and valuable and endearing sidekick characters. (Think of Bob in Jim Butcher’s THE DRESDEN FILES. Bob–the randy old spirit who lives in a skull, forever doomed by a witch’s curse.) I adore Bob. He’s outrageous and funny and wise and pathetic. Do I want to read an entire book from Bob’s perspective? No! Do I want Bob to steal the story away from Harry? No!
Why? Because Harry is the star of the series, and Harry has been designed to make me like him best.
Fictional sidekicks have been famous and much-loved down through the rich tradition of story: Dr. Watson, Mr. Spock, Batman’s Robin, Jeeves the butler, Tinker Bell, Inigo Montoya, Tonto, Kato, etc., etc., etc. They are the helpers, the innovators, the faithful friends. They can also betray the hero or fail or die.
They are useful to writers in so many ways. Yet, part of their success lies in that they are not the lead character. They have different responsibilities in carrying the story forward to its conclusion. Mess with that by making them equal in stature, equal in viewpoint, equal in the number of pages you devote to them, and the storyline becomes in danger of splitting focus.
It makes the ending almost impossible to write well because if everyone is a top star, who deals with the bad guy? Who makes the heroic sacrifice? Who finds the solution? Do we then need an ensemble cast of bad guys?
Be careful of trends. Remember that Ron and Hermione do a lot, but they are never more important to the story than Harry Potter. Rowling was wise in crafting her stories. She offers plenty of good guys to cheer for, but she never lets readers lose sight of her star.