Not long ago, I was talking about my love for working with ensemble casts in my stories. It’s something that I really love to engage in as a writer, and it sort of fleshes out the world that I’m working with. I mean, even if you happen to be a fan of video games, you might remember way back when it was just your character on the screen trying to complete some kind of quest or whatever, and a horde of enemies trying to stop you. But video games have evolved since then. When you run through a city or a neighborhood...there are actual people walking around. Driving, shopping, talking, and just existing all around your character. Not enemies. They’re just sort of there. Hehehe! Well, when I’m writing...I think about this from time to time and try to keep things as realistic as I can, while still keeping my focus centered around a small cast of characters that I plan to be using to carry my story. Because that’s what characters do. They carry your story. Not the other way around.
I can’t really spend too much time building up side characters that aren’t really meant to have much of an impact on the plot as it plays out, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. It’s a bit unrealistic to think that NONE of my fictional characters have any friends at school. No teachers? No parents? No activities? No homework? I do try to address the situation, but only briefly. And only if it means something to the rest of the story. But I’m doubting that there are any of us who don’t have daily interactions with other people in some capacity or another. Friends, family, neighbors, the mailman, an online chat, a text on your phone...something is happening outside of your own personal bubble at home, right? Even a virtual recluse like me has to go out and deal with other human entities every once in a while. Hehehe! So, I like to make the stories that I write feel as though they’re somehow ‘populated’ with other people from time to time. Even if they only appear as faceless with no dialogue at all, at least they’re there. I might describe a crowded school hallway, a mall, a skater park, a family gathering...something. It keeps my fictional world from feeling like some sort of dystopian wasteland where the only ones left are the protagonist and his love interest. You know?
However...when it comes to building a cast of characters that are meant to share the spotlight with my main character? I get to have a great deal of fun building them up through their interactions with one another. And I feel like I have a lot more freedom to define who they are as individuals without having them come off as awkward or forced in the storytelling. You have no idea how off-putting it is to have a side character just start giving a random monologue about themselves without any real reason as to why they felt the need to do so. It’s creepy. Hehehe! And people don’t often talk like that. Even if you have a wide fanbase of readers who are already fully invested into whatever it is that you’re writing...something like that will pull them out of the moment and weaken your story as a whole. Sad, but true.
This goes back to the fundamental rule of writing. ‘Show, don’t tell’.
The beauty of having an ensemble cast to work with is that you can really lean into it and create a dynamic with other characters populating your story that will convincingly expose who they are in an interesting way that your audience will hopefully appreciate in the long run. Remember, it’s up to your characters, all of the ones you focus on, to do the heavy lifting and carry the story forward. And if you want your readers to care about them and empathize with what they’re going through (Or, at least loathe them for being the bastards that you created them to be), then you’re going to have to find a way to explore and explain who they are, inside and out...so that can happen and have some weight.
This can be achieved through character interactions.
Let’s say that you have a side character who’s a total hot head. He can’t help it, he’s just cursed with an extremely short fuse and a very low tolerance for bullshit of any kind. Would he be sitting down with your main character and just go into a monologue about how he has a bad temper and sometimes loses control? Would he just say that out of nowhere? That would feel a bit awkward to me if I read that in the middle of a story. Just saying.
But, maybe this is a scene that demonstrates a certain level of bonding between this character and your protagonist. What I would do, personally, is have a third character involved that just rubs him the wrong way. It might not be on purpose. In fact, it might be completely benign on the other boy’s part. But he’s frustrated and annoyed by every word that comes out of his mouth, and they clash and interact in a way that is hostile and destructive at every turn. I would write out a scene or two of cruelty and conflict first between them...and then have my protagonist sit down with him and ask him what his problem is. THEN...maybe he sighs and gives a short, ‘I just lose control sometimes’, speech...almost in an apologetic way. We’ve already demonstrated his behavior and see the aftermath of his tantrums...but it comes from his interaction with the third member of their little group. We’ve seen it first hand. And being asked about it has a preamble that makes sense in a literary sense. He’s not just telling us something about himself out of nowhere. Allow your characters to mesh and talk every now and then. Weave them into the story in a meaningful way, and ‘show’ why they feel and act the way they do.
With a bunch of different characters (Not TOO many), you get conflicting emotions, different goals, competitive instincts, and a lot more. All of us are different, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t coexist. One of the reasons that I’ve never been a big Facebook fan is the simple fact that I don’t interact with everybody in the same way. That’s not to say that I’m being fake or dishonest with anybody. It’s just that I can joke around with the friends I grew up with in high school in a way that I could never joke with the people I used to work with. I can’t talk to the people I work with the same way that I talk to my family. And so forth and so on. I can’t curse and make sex jokes or bring up funny drunken memories from my college days on Facebook! My MOM reads this! LOL! Well, if you look at the character interactions that I put into all of my stories...the same thing is happening there. It’s not really all that different.
The best example of this is probably “The Secret Life Of Billy Chase”. Billy is keeping a secret journal with all of his daily thoughts and experiences, and that’s the one place where he feels like he can speak freely and give an unapologetic view into who he really is as a person. That’s the part of Billy’s life that you as the reader get to read and enjoy it as it is. However, Billy also has an entire life full of parents and friends and lovers and classmates and co-workers who don’t get to see what the audience gets to see. And his interactions with those people mirror my own in my life. Billy is still being honest, and he’s 100% Billy, no matter what. But he can’t have the same kind of open conversations with his mom that he has with his best friend, Sam. And those conversations are different from the way that he talks to his boyfriend. And he can’t talk to his boyfriend in the same way that he might talk to the other friends he has at school. Noticing this is important. But why? And how does it make a difference to you as a writer?
It’s because every interaction that my protagonist, Billy, has with each of these different cliques becomes a clear demonstration of who he is as a main character. Everyone that he comes into contact with, whether it be in a positive or a negative way, brings out another aspect of his personality. Some will allow you to see his romantic side, some will display his angry and mistrust, some will show his envy, some will bring his lustful cravings to the surface, others will cause him to feel insecure and afraid...every aspect of his personality is showcased depending on who he’s involved with in that moment. At the same time, having those characters run into one another during the length of your story will create opportunities to expose their personalities and flaws as well. Their interactions build this community that they can all feed off of and trade that energy between one another. In my opinion, this is the best and most entertaining method of introducing and exploring all of the characters in your project. Everyone gets a chance to shine, and creates a bit of a shine to the characters that they’re communicating with, simultaneously. It’s a win/win situation, all around.
If you have two characters that absolutely love and care for one another...that says something. If they can’t stand being in the same room with one another, that also says something. If they’re shy and inexplicably bashful around one another...that’s a whole other message being sent. And if they have a history together that creates sadness and heartbreak...another message. Use these interactions as a tool to tell their story and make them more than just flat cardboard cutouts or background characters. If you don’t need them there, take them out of your story. But if you decide to keep them there, give their presence some meaning. By having them share exchanges with one another beefs up their character and gives them more of a history and a purpose as to why they’re a part of your story. And that means that their interactions with your main character will end up having more depth and meaning as a natural side effect of that initial process. Does that make sense?
You know more about who your protagonist’s friends and family are...which allow them to have a deeper impact on your protagonist.
The way that I often go about this method of writing is by having my main character spend time with each other character separately at first. A one on one meeting where some of the set up details can be conveyed and expressed. He has blue eyes, he’s really standoffish, he wears ripped jeans and retro rock band T-shirts, he’s always in detention...whatever. Very basic descriptions and a few short engagements to build him up on his own first so as not to get him confused with anybody else right away. That’s my usual formula for character interactions, even if I do break the mold from time to time. Then...I bring that character into contact with another one of the characters in the story and see how they act with one another. Sometimes in a good way, and sometimes in a bad way. Whichever I choose...there’s always something being accomplished through having them meet one another, and I try to make it so it highlights parts of both characters’ personalities by seeing how the gel with each other. And even if they don’t get along at first, that leaves room for their relationship to build and evolve beyond that later on. And if not, then I still have characters who are capable of bringing whatever side of my protagonist that I need to use for that particular progression of the story. Whether it be an inspiring and supportive friend, or a troublemaker ‘Devils Advocate’ type...I can use that to craft a well written series of events that will create the peaks and valleys for the kind of the roller coaster vibe that I’m going for. Bonus!
Every character that you put into your story should feel like the kind of person that your readers could somehow meet in person and hang out with some time. They should feel real. They don’t have to be perfect, or even likable. But you want them to be memorable. Again...your characters are in charge of carrying the story forward. If you can get your audience invested in them and their struggle, then your work is already half way done. Let them breathe life into your story, and peel back their many complex layers a little bit at a time by having them participate in their interactions with the other characters in your story. Not everybody gets along. And those that do...they don’t get along on everything. Use these emotional collisions to create special moments, to add levity through a humorous back and forth, or bring about the kind of friction that disrupts the peace of the placid lake you’re riding on.
It’s a good thing. Trust me. It has more of a positive effect on your story as a whole than you may think, so give it a try.
Alrighty then! I hope this helps! Pay attention to the way your characters already connect and talk to one another in the stories you’ve written so far. Or, if you’re just now thinking about writing your first...then take these lessons to heart, and build the most believable and drama filled world that you can. It helps to answer the whole, ‘How do I introduce this person into the group’ question. You’ll go mad trying to figure that one out. Hehehe, I speak from experience.
Stay beautiful, you guys! And I’ll seezya soon with more! Happy writing!