Working with an Ensemble Cast

I’m to the climax of the space dinosaur book, which is exciting! And also scary, because I’m trying out fencepost outlining for this particular project (basically, you identify the major plot points for your arcs–first plot point, midpoint, second plot point, etc.–and that’s about it) so I’m not 100% sure how this is going down, but sometimes that’s part of the fun!

This book is meant to be the first book of a series, and as it takes place on a spaceship with a crew of about 150 people, there’s a lot of people to deal with. It can be overwhelming. So what are you to do when you’ve got a ton of people to keep track of?

Well, me, I’m taking a page from one of my very favorite science fiction series, Star Trek: the Next Generation. (And arguably other Trek franchises, like Deep Space Nine and Voyager.)

Next Gen had a core cast of characters–Picard, Riker, Data, Geordi, Deanna, Beverly, Worf–as well as several reoccurring characters, such as Barclay, Chief O’Brien, Q, Guinan, that nurse whose name is slipping my mind, Wesley in later seasons, etc. In general, you got a good idea of the scope of the ship without getting overwhelmed by everyone on it.

So when I started setting up my cast, I focused on my core crew, which looks like this:

(Remember what I said about character images from last week.)

(Also, if you can’t read names–I have never claimed to be decent at digital art–it goes Ari, Brian, Chris, Dave, Lin, Robin, Roya, Tom.)

That gave me a good spread across the ship–these people are essentially in charge of different departments. (And, well, space dinosaur.)

However, depending on the type of story you’re writing, eight viewpoints is a lot of viewpoints. A thriller where character is less important and you can have a multiple of viewpoints is one thing. But I wanted to have characters people could identify with, that they’d follow along with for the entire series. That they’d care about. So I decided I’d do three viewpoints per book, with the focus being on who is most involved in the plot for that book. The main plot for this book involves an unknown saboteur who somehow manages to get around all the security measures, so the engineering characters have a lot to do. Other people–medical or science staff, for example–are around, and do contribute, but it doesn’t make sense to give them viewpoints here.

And in writing this book, some of those secondary characters, the ones that make a ship feel like a real, working vessel and not just a backdrop for the officers, have already started to show up. I’m taking note of them so I can use them throughout the series. I don’t know if they’ll ever become viewpoint characters later down the road, but, hey, anything’s possible.

I mean, Chief O’Brien didn’t even get a name for two seasons and went on to be the chief engineer of DS9.

What are your favorite ensemble casts, squiders? Any thoughts on how they’ve been handled, good or bad?

2 responses to this post.

  1. Another good example is Black Hawk Down. The book has like a hundred characters, which the film trimmed down to a few dozen, many that are amalgamations of multiple characters from the book. The film them focuses in on even fewer in detail and for point of view.

    Reply

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