“And an Ensemble Cast!”

28 Jan

Last night, I was discussing with my son the difficulties with an ensemble cast. How it can work in some instances, but not others. But do you know when you should write for three to nine main characters?

You’re probably wondering, “Gee, what kind of conversations does Marcus have with his son, that cast size becomes a topic?” Well, my son Asher loves acting, and because of COVID and lack of friends, he watches a LOT more TV. So naturally, this is something on his mind.

At my gushing, we also watched League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which generally gets a bad rap, but I love it despite its flaws. Partly because it’s a steampunk movie (and there are precious few of those), but mostly because its the concept of Victorian lit characters coming to life, banding together to fight evil!

I usually blame the fact that most moving-going audiences don’t know their Victorian lit enough to appreciate these characters, but watching it with Asher made me realize another problem–there are too many characters! So you notice in the picture that there are seven (or eight) main characters, a villain (or two), and several secondary characters to keep track of. After the one third mark, none of them have enough screen time for us to really appreciate any of them. You could have taken away Skinner and Sawyer (and maybe Jekyll) and it would have been a much better movie.

But an ensemble cast on screen can work! Take The Avengers, which also have seven main characters. Why? Because you know all these characters already. Apart from Black Widow and Hawkeye, each of these characters had their own movie, so they’re already developed. You don’t need to develop their story in The Avengers; you just want to see them interact with other superheroes that you already love.

Which is why an ensemble cast works great on a TV show. Take Chuck, for example, since me and my kids are going through it right now. As you can see from the picture, nine main characters. Except they’re aren’t–there are three main characters (Chuck, Sarah, and Casey) and then everyone else comes and goes in the plot as needed. Sure, they’re in the opening credits, but only the Trio of Power is in every episode. A TV show lets you do that–provides time for all the characters (even secondary ones) to be developed fully so that you can love them.

That’s why–in my opinion–LXG failed. The other problem was leaning too hard on a LOT of CGI, but I thought the actors gave great performances and it could have worked had the audience known these characters. In novels, you have a middle ground–you have time to develop, but not a LOT of time. So you’re stuck with a balancing act. When I wrote Fatebane, there were four main characters… and even then, that was one too many. So when I wrote the sequel, there were only three. When you’re on a spaceship, the crew is important, but you don’t want so many characters that the reader can’t keep track, so I had the main character, the captain, and the competent officer… everyone else came and went.

What do you think? Have you seen an ensemble cast work in movies? In books? Why do you think that worked? Let me know in the comments below!

3 Responses to ““And an Ensemble Cast!””

  1. SirNolen January 28, 2021 at 2:35 pm #

    “Firefly” was another sucessful ensemble cast (nine main characters) – but again, that was a TV show that had more time to develop each character.

  2. Silk Cords January 28, 2021 at 10:24 pm #

    League of Extraordinary Gentlemen suffered from what many comic book adaptations do; trying to condense a whole series down to a 1 1/2 to 2 hour movie. There’s ALOT that was left out of the movie, such as The Invisible Man stalking a girl’s finishing school as a serial rapist, and My Hyde later literally sodomizing him to death.

    Comic Book writers really can be sick puppies sometimes…

    A movie with that many “main” characters is bound to have some of them playing bit parts. Ensembles work better in TV shows IMO. Most of the successful ones go the route of Chuck, with episodes focusing on rotating members of the ensemble. Probably the best example there was actually animated: Justice League Unlimited. After the first two seasons, the show got the “Unlimited” suffix and the League grew from 5 founders to 40ish members. Each episode focused on a handful of members though. So the viewer may not have had a complete backstory, etc… on a third stringer like Shining Knight, but at least they knew who he was, what he stood for etc…

    On the flip side, there’s ABC’s current show “The Rookie”. Also ensemble, but it does a fairly good job of giving everybody equal screen time as the show explores life as LA Police rookies and their training officers. Hawaii Five-0 did a fairly good job of sharing the spotlight also once the two leads got too old to do alot of action stunts, lol

    • albigensia January 29, 2021 at 6:45 am #

      Interesting. Come to think about it, Watchmen the movie turned out really good (of course, I never read the comics), but in that case, the characters weren’t as important as the overall ethos – which is, what would the world really be like if superheroes existed.

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