A Cast of Characters: Paying Tribute to The Ensemble

In working on a novel with numerous characters, I ask myself what is it about a cast of characters who interact closely that we find so appealing? How do we juggle lots of people? How do we keep them all interesting and worthy of a reader/viewer’s attention? It strikes me that this is a difficult task, whether it be in literature, television, or film.

One thing that strikes me is that there has to be plot lines of equal weight; that is, no one plotline is more important than the other. Each storyline must be intriguing enough that the reader/viewer will remain engaged, have events that grab the reader/viewer in a dramatic way. Think of Anna Karenina: we want to know if Anna will be able to divorce Karenin, but we also want to know if Levin will ever find love again after being rejected by Kitty. Or “Ted Lasso”: will Ted open up to Dr. Fieldstone and reveal his past trauma? But wait, we also want to know if Nate will develop confidence and get proper acknowledgement of his talents, and if Rebecca will find romance with her mystery texter on Bantr!

Second, there have to be characters that are generally equally interesting. One may be a villain, one may be finding their strength, one may be driving the plot, etc. In the performing arts, this requires an ensemble cast of actors who are all extremely talented. I recently saw the “Top Gun: Maverick” sequel and the cast was full of heavyweights. It is hard to say if Tom Cruise is a better actor than Val Kilmer or if Kilmer is a better actor than Ed Harris or if Harris is better than Jennifer Connolly. It is a good sign when a production can cast the best people who are at the top of their game and equally talented. In literature, if we look at Little Women, we are invested in Jo’s desire to become a published writer, but also in seeing if Meg can succeed at domestic life and marriage, if Amy will change after a trip abroad, and, sadly, if the frail Beth will stay in good health or succumb to illness.

All the characters must be working together toward the momentum of the plot and the narrative. Their interactions contribute to what will happen, building tension and moving the story forward. We don’t want too many weak links because they will stick out like a sore thumb. The characters together must also form a whole, a sort of literary “family” that we care about, beloved group and community that we want to see succeed–or perhaps fail! I believe this relates to our communal nature as human beings, a primal urge to value groups and understand their dynamics. It is also very important to note that many non-western or non-white literary traditions place a high value on the ensemble or group over the individual. The “Great Man Theory” that predominates in our artistic culture is not necessarily esteemed elsewhere.

I have always believed there should be an Oscar category for “ensemble cast,” because sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and it feels wrong to nominate one actor and not another who was equally excellent in a film. The Screen Actors Guild rightfully does this, likely because its nominating members are fellow actors and people in the field who understand the importance of this. And the best writers who can juggle many balls in the air, so to speak, create complex works of literature that are tapestries of narratives and characters.