Ensemble Casts

In a Q+A post, someone asked:
How many main characters are too many when writing a first issue?

When you’re scripting for a single protagonist, your story can be written fairly sequentially… Point A, leads to point B, to C, to D, etc. Of course you’ll have support story arcs that pop up, and weave them into the narrative accordingly, but again with one MC (Main Character) you’re working on a pretty linear path (unless you choose to digress).

With the Ensemble Cast script, you’re working with multiple MC’s. This means you’re weaving together all the main character story arcs and your support arcs! This leads to a narrative path with more twists, turns and tangents.

So how many characters are too many?

The differences between comic story structure/scripting and regular fiction are few and far between and subtle in many cases. That said, the one overwhelming aspect is compression.

I actually argue that comics are one of the most limiting forms of fiction there is (screw you Haiku). Whether you’re working in a 22 page 1 shot or a 100 page graphic novel, the real estate to express a complete narrative is extremely limited.

So when it comes to scripting and balancing an Ensemble Cast, it really comes down to how well you can compress and arrange the character arcs and deliver a coherent narrative.
There is no definitive limit–it simply comes down to personal skill and ability.
If you enjoy writing longer scenes and can only manage two MCs, do two… if you can get points across really quick, like lots of transitions, juggling and can manage ten MCs, do ten.

Now here are some specifics to keep in mind:

* Speaking broadly here, a single shot issue will “average” out at about 8 or 9 scenes.
Obviously, if you have more than 3-5 MCs, there’s a good chance some folks will get extremely limited page time, if any, or all your scenes will be Thanksgiving get togethers–nevermind being able to actually develop and showcase complete character arcs (talk more about this in a second). And don’t forget the average scene count above takes into account ALL scenes, not just main character focused scenes.

* All main characters need to have a complete arc relative to the theme of the story.
This means each character has to be first shown with their flaws, then shown to conquer or change these flaws relative to theme. If you don’t show this transformation with EVERY character (Villains excluded) in an ensemble cast, you’ve weakened the core of the story.

* In an Ensemble cast script, the spotlight falls on Pacing.
When you’re trying to establish character arcs of multiple people, it’s easy to get bogged down in backstory or slower paced content one after another.
This can kill a comic.
You need to pay extra attention to the pacing and make sure character development is not overshadowing other elements of good story telling, action, jeopardy, suspense… etc.

* Another consideration with any story containing a lot of characters, you need to keep all the cast present and relevant as the story progresses. Similar to the first bullet point, but more to the point; you don’t want any one character falling aside and being forgotten, only to return at a pivotal moment and drastically alter the story. If characters do fall to the side, be sure to re-introduce them before they do anything important.

Realistically, Ensemble casts are reserved for series, graphic novels, or one shots of established characters.

In the series script, there’s nothing wrong with introducing and developing the characters over time-just keep in mind the “overall pacing” of the entire series/story and make sure you don’t lose readers from a slow issue.

Last Tip; an Ensemble cast makes end of comic hooks pretty easy. You can show one of the characters in jeopardy, or early on in the series, you can introduce one of the characters at the end, surrounding them in suspense and mystery.▪

About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S.  Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.

For more tips, bookmark the writing craft page. For all the tips buy the book.

Show your support by sharing the writing craft page on your social media.

© 2016 Nick Macari. No reproduction without written permission.