Note: This post is done in a roundtable style where members of Writer’s Block Party discuss a topic together.
Moderator & Editor: Melody Simpson
QUESTION ONE: What does an ensemble cast mean to you?
Ashley: I think an ensemble cast is a group of characters–maybe four or more? Or three or more?–who have equal involvement in a story, even if they are not all POV characters. Think SIX OF CROWS by Leigh Bardugo; the story belongs to every member of the crew, and they all affect the plot in one way or another.
Katy: This is how I would define it too! You can have a huge cast of characters without necessarily being an ensemble cast (think of HARRY POTTER). The difference is that with an ensemble cast, there is essentially more than one person’s story being told. With an ensemble cast, you may have a protagonist who is your way into the story, but ultimately there are multiple characters who are given equal weight in the story.
Meg: I agree with Ashley and Katy. I also think that in an ensemble cast, we don’t necessarily need all of the characters’ full POVs. I would consider our friend, Axie Oh’s book, REBEL SEOUL to be an ensemble cast book because multiple characters’ stories are being told—like the others said—but it’s all in Jaewon’s POV. There’s a lot of interesting ways to write one!
Kat: I love ensemble casts and I don’t necessarily think all of the characters need equal “screen time” or POV time. I also agree that some characters can be very integral to a story and not need a POV. There are some amazing ensemble casts that grew out of a story that seemed like it had one core protagonist but it turned out that the whole group was important to reach the ultimate goal. This actually reminds me of Buffy and how it turned from a “chosen one” narrative to one about how all of her friends and allies became important to saving the world. A lot.
Christine: I agree with everything said above, and I’d like to add that I think the key way I define an ensemble cast is when, instead of one character’s arc driving a story’s plot, the group as a whole’s character arcs are driving the plot. There can be one arc that’s more prominent than the others, but the other arcs have to be an essential part of the story.
QUESTION TWO: What are some YA books that nail ensemble casts? What qualities about them do you find most effective and admire most?
Ashley: Obviously SIX OF CROWS by Leigh Bardugo has an excellent ensemble cast. THE DIVINERS by Libba Bray, A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC by V.E. Schwab and THE DARKEST MINDS by Alexandra Bracken are also great examples. In each of these books, I was invested in the emotional arcs of every single character in the ensemble. Each character had equal footing when it came to agency, backstory, and development, and that can be really hard to do.
Katy: SIX OF CROWS is my go-to example as well, which is an ensemble cast that also has multiple POVs. THE EMPEROR’S BLADES by Brian Staveley is another good example (that’s not YA though). And obviously GAME OF THRONES is the ultimate ensemble cast–with good reason! Each of these authors uses the ensemble cast to tell the same story through the eyes of very different characters. I love when authors create parallels between characters in their casts to highlight the very specific ways each character reacts to the events in the story. I also love when an author allows me to root for multiple characters–even when those characters are pitted against each other.
Meg: Obviously I’m going to say AN EMBER IN THE ASHES by Sabaa Tahir because I’m a broken record. Each POV brings a separate experience to the story, and even as they share experiences, they interpret them differently. An older book with a single POV that I think has a fun ensemble cast is THE PRINCESS DIARIES by Meg Cabot. Again, I think having memorable characters who play well off each other makes the cast, not necessarily how many POVS are actually written out.
Kat: I actually think that DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE by Laini Taylor turns into an ensemble cast (Don’t @ me!). I love stories that turn from what seems like a straightforward single protagonist tale into an ensemble that must work together toward a common goal and that’s how I see DOSAB. While the first book is framed as if it’s just Karou and Akiva’s story, as you go through the trilogy, more POV characters are introduced and you realize how integral they are to the penultimate events that close out the series. Also, I just adore everyone in that trilogy. They’re all so dynamic even when they’re just presented as ancillary characters. Also, the PERCY JACKSON books do this. They introduce new characters and those characters become more and more important as the series goes on. Then in HEROES OF OLYMPUS, you can kind of see how Rick Riordan just embraced the ensemble-ness of his writing and made it multi-POV.
Christine: Some of my favorites have already been mentioned, but I’d also say that Sarah Rees Brennan’s tragically underrated UNSPOKEN trilogy nails the group cast dynamic amongst its characters. Another group cast book that’s more under the radar is INVICTUS by Ryan Graudin, where the entire crew of a time-traveling ship is integral to the story and embodies everything I adore about found family tropes.
QUESTION THREE: What do you find most challenging about creating ensemble casts?
Katy: I absolutely love writing ensemble casts, so it’s hard for me to say what the biggest challenge is, because to me coming up with characters is the best part of writing. I guess one of the toughest things is making sure each character continues to play an important role as the plot progresses–and making sure that even if their character arcs mirror one another, there’s a purposeful contrast in the choices they ultimately make.
Ashley: I agree with Katy! It’s hard work ensuring every character plays a role throughout the plot and that each character is getting a solid arc. The way a character interacts with the world around them, how it informs their decisions along with their fears and desires, and how those decisions affect the plot–that’s difficult for one character. But doing that for five or six characters, with the addition of how they interact with one another, in tandem or opposition or even if they are on opposite ends of the world, is so. Much. Work. It’s also incredibly fun.
Meg: I have to agree—character arc is huge. I think we fear one of our characters being the boring character, especially if our book is multiple POVs. One of my characters is more quiet and reserved than my other two POVs and because of that I thought my CPs would think she was boring and want to skip ahead. Somehow I managed to avoid that, but it’s been a really tough balance of character motivation and plot. It’s also difficult when not all of your characters have met yet, and you need to continue to setup that one day they will (I promise!).
Kat: I agree with everyone! I think Katy brings up good points that it’s not really the point to give every character equal weight but it is important to give them all their own life so they aren’t two-dimensional. I also think Meg has a really good point about how we sometimes worry that when most of our characters are really interesting and dynamic a character that is more reserved or quiet might come across as boring. I think that those moments are challenges that can allow us to flex our creativity muscles. I also think that I’m just going to gloat about Katy’s book, There Will Come A Darkness (since I have had the pleasure of reading it) and saying that there are some characters that do get more “page time” than others, but what I loved was each character was so distinct that when I was in a new POV I knew exactly who I was following. It’s something that’s hard to nail down at first, but it’s so key when you’re doing multiple POVs and once you get it, then the story is that much richer.
Christine: There’s been lots of discussion about character arcs, and those are ABSOLUTELY key, but I would argue that the most challenging and important part of that is voice. When you’re handling multiple POVs — something that’s found in many group cast books — making everyone sound like an individual person who has something compelling about them is necessary, and also super difficult. Another big challenge with ensemble casts is handling who knows what information, and how it’s distributed. When you’re juggling multiple POVs, each character has different secrets, motives, and background information that, when seen all together, gives the reader a VERY different view on the world than the lens they’d get from just one character. Learning how to use this to maximize tension instead of deflate it is incredibly difficult, and something it took me a long time to get the hang of. But it’s super rewarding when it’s done right.
QUESTION FOUR: When and how do you decide to make an ensemble story either a single POV story or multiple POV? What has brought you to that decision for a particular story of yours in the past (since every story comes together differently)?
Katy: This is such a great question! I am a huge fan of multiple POVs–both in writing and in reading! My current book is multiple points of view, and it really never occurred to me to try to write it in a single point of view. The story simply wouldn’t work from a single perspective, because the characters all start out separated and as the story progresses they come together in interesting ways. I have had ideas for books with ensemble casts that might make more sense from one point-of-view–but I haven’t written any of those yet, so it’s hard to say!
Ashley: My current book also has multiple POVs, even though it didn’t start that way. I think any time you’re deciding how to tell a story, ensemble cast or no, what you have to do is figure out why any given character is telling the story. What about their perspective is interesting and essential to this story? What emotional journey are they going to go on, and how does that inform the plot?
Meg: Part of the decision is honestly a gut feeling, at least for me. Someone very early on suggested to me that I should take out one of my three POVs. I considered it, but the depth I would lose to the book would be too great. It would have been like taking out part of a puzzle. The book wouldn’t be a complete picture without that character in it. It’s definitely not an easy task to take on multiple POVs beyond two—it’s a lot of juggling—but if you try to stay focused and remember arcs/motivations, it can be a lot more manageable.
Kat: I agree with what everyone has said so far. It’s important to note why you choose to include the POVs you do and if it’s adding to the narrative or merely complicating it. Sometimes a story can be told in a simpler way and still be good. Sometimes you just won’t get the full depth of a narrative without another POV. I do that thing where you rewrite your manuscript so much with each version that you’re pretty much just writing a new story. It’s a lot of work but it’s really good for me to see it on the page because I can figure out which version of the story works best. I do this with the amount of POVs I use, too. For one version of my debut novel, GUMIHO, I had four POVs and it was just too much. There were two POVs that were pretty much just side characters and I included them because I wanted to show the main characters in a new light, but it wasn’t enough of a reason to include two completely new voices in my story. So I cut them.
I do like that thing where you have one or two POVs in the first book but you build out more as you get to the next book. So, I did end up adding new POVs for my sequel (which is currently kicking my butt). What I love about that is seeing how different the perception of a character becomes when you go from just observing them to actually being in their head. It’s a fun experiment to take a character and only talk about them from others’ perspectives. In a way, you might get to see things about a character that they’d never think about themselves.
Christine: I…don’t write single-POV stories. Never say never, I guess, but truly, the first time I wrote a second POV in a novel, I realized I would never go back. My brain naturally seeks out narratives that follow multiple main characters’ journeys, and demands their points of view so that the reader can get as deep a dive as possible into their heads. I love it so much–it’s challenging, but it’s my favorite way to tell a story. My debut duology has five main characters; three have POVs in the first book, and four have POVs in the sequel, which gives the reader time in everyone’s heads. This was a choice I made because it felt necessary in order to fully appreciate each character’s unique perspective, and to allow them all to let the reader inside their journeys. Also, their voices showed up in my head and wouldn’t leave, so I was like, yes, fine, I will write your book. Another project I’m working on has four POVs; another has two. I think multi-POV narratives are deeply tied into how I tell a story.
QUESTION FIVE: When creating the distinctions amongst your cast, what do you gravitate towards most in terms of what do find the most joy in creating how each character navigates the world?
Katy: The unique ways in which characters think about themselves, their dilemmas, and the events of the story is always very compelling to me. One character might be extremely analytical and strategic, while another might be reckless and impulsive. People react to things in such varying and sometimes unpredictable ways, and playing with that is so much fun. The internality of each character is totally unique to who they are and what they’ve been through, and that’s really my favorite aspect of writing characters (and writing in general!)
Ashley: Even though it can be challenging, like Katy, I think it’s really fun to dive into multiple characters’ heads. To see things through their eyes, to explore their reactions to any given situation, their internal thoughts. Exploring one character from the perspective of another–to know how one character sees herself and then contrast that with how another character sees her–is one of my favorite aspects of writing multiple POVs. I also love writing from a perspective that is wholly different from my one, such as that of a villain. Someone who makes decisions I would never make and whose code of conduct or morality looks nothing like mine. Writing is an exercise in empathy, and writing multiple POVs means empathizing with all kinds of characters.
Meg: I think the others really summed things up well. You get to change your mindset a lot, which can be really fun. In the past I’ve done simple character building tasks like, “How would my three characters react to ____ (a plot point, a TV show, etc.)” It’s a good test to see where their ideologies align and where they differ! I love when I can play up similarities between my characters and create parallels between their chapters.
Kat: I love how a character’s upbringing, motivations, and general mindset might make them see a similar situation in completely different ways. I’m going to nerd out and bring up a comic example. So the original hulk was Bruce Banner and he saw his situation as being the hulk in a negative way for a long time. However, the new hulk is Korean American genius, Amadeus Cho. And he sees being the hulk in a very positive way. It’s not because being the hulk is any different for either character physically. But because of who they are as characters they just perceive the exact same situation in different ways. I love that! So, I like to take that mindset into how my characters react to whatever the big conflict is in my story. I like to see how they go about trying to solve it or work with it or take advantage of it. And that also really does dictate how they interact with each other as well.
Christine: When I build character, I strive to answer a simple question: the things that scare them, and things that they care about enough to face their fears for. Once I understand that, I have the heart of them–the motivation that will drive their arc. I love to make my characters layered and idiosyncratic, as much like real people as I can. I give them different senses of humor and hobbies; I take personality tests as each of my POV characters in order to get a sense of what Buzzfeed quizzes and such would tell them, how they fit into the world. I immerse. Honestly, the cast of my debut duology feels like five people I’ve spent a lot of time hanging out with, who still surprise me every day with their hidden depths, and yet are the same people I “met” three and a half years ago. It’s my happy place.
We’d love to hear your thoughts about your favorite ensemble casts and/or your favorite part in the process of creating ensemble casts! Fill us in with a comment below!