Columns > Published on October 24th, 2014

How to Assemble an Ensemble: Team-Building for Writers

Somebody much smarter than me once said that the essence of drama is just putting characters in a room and watching what happens when they bounce off of each other. Maybe they’ll fall in love, maybe they’ll kill each other—possibly both. But sometimes if you mix the right elements the literary chemistry will create something special: an ensemble, a group of characters working together to tell a story more interesting than any protagonist can alone. If you need to plot a scheme, from daring heists to audacious assassinations, your first step is to put together the right crew. There are few things more fun than watching a group of very skilled people come together and put on an astounding performance. However, assembling a good ensemble is not as simple as thrusting your magic sword into a lightning-filled sky and screaming a sacred catchphrase. No, in life and in your writing, choosing the right people for the job is the difference between success and failure.

Fortunately, pop culture is rife with examples of excellently assembled ensembles, from The Dirty Dozen to the Guardians of the Galaxy. But what do the best teams all have in common? Let’s boil the ensemble down to its essential elements, using an example I’m sure everyone is familiar with by now: The Avengers. While the team expands and culls its ranks more frequently than a professional sports franchise, its most successful iterations always make sure to include these six essentials. If your ensemble is going to save the day, you need:

The Leader

This one probably seems the most obvious. What’s less so is the leader’s actual role. There is no definitive leader’s resume, just a job description. The leader isn’t just the guy in charge—he’s the reason the team comes together. He’s the hero, the legend admired by everyone. His example inspires others to follow him, and they try harder because they don’t want to disappoint him. If he says something needs to be done, it’s hard to argue, but he’s not necessarily the guy giving orders. Superman, for instance, is the ideological leader of the Justice League, but in the field he often defers to Batman’s judgment. When the League has to coordinate against larger threats, Superman is the noble captain leading troops into battle, while Batman is the general issuing orders from the command center.

In life and in your writing, choosing the right people for the job is the difference between success and failure.

On the Avengers, Captain America does both. He’s a war hero, one of the greatest soldiers to ever live. Pretty much every young superhero in the Marvel universe has a personal soliloquy about how they want to be just like him when they grow up. When the Avengers are on the brink of defeat, it’s the sight of that iconic shield that inspires them onward. No matter how complicated your story may become, the leader is the symbol of their struggle at its most simple. A good leader will remind not just his troops, but also the reader and writer, what this story is really about.

The Rookie

Experience is important, but so are fresh ideas and new perspectives. When a team has worked together for a long time, there’s a chance they can become set in their ways. A new member can push them to think outside the box, and training the rookie is always a good bonding exercise. The enthusiasm of a newcomer is often infectious, reminding the veterans of why they got into the game in the first place. Hawkeye didn’t join the Avengers because he was overly concerned with saving the world, but because there is simply nothing he loves more than shooting things with arrows. If he joined the military they’d make him use a gun, but a team of superheroes lets him indulge his antique murder fetish in the name of justice.

The rookie can also be a useful storytelling tool, as they make great audience surrogates. He can ask all the questions your reader will have, and makes a great excuse for unloading exposition. Just don’t overdo it, because if your rookie doesn’t know anything your audience will start to wonder why they got recruited in the first place. It’s also important to let the rookie show off his raw talent every now and then for the same reason, otherwise he just becomes the team dunce. While everybody makes fun of Hawkeye for using a bow and arrow, nobody wants to be the one that quit before the guy fighting evil robots with pointy sticks.

The Genius

The genius isn’t just tech support, although that is usually a big part of his job if your story has a modern setting. He doesn’t just operate the gadgets—he knows how things work. If there is a skill or piece of equipment that is vital to mission success, the genius trains the team to use it. If there’s a code or formula to crack, the genius will study the shit out of it. Having a genius on the crew is what elevates it to a problem-solving team rather than just a unit of first responders. The leader needs information and advice to make good decisions, and it’s always a good idea to listen to the smartest guy in the room. It’s an even better idea to get the smartest guy in the world and bring him to your room, which is how Tony Stark ended up working tech for the Avengers during the Battle of Manhattan.

In good ensembles, the genius is doing more than pushing buttons and crossing wires—he’s helping you build a world. It’s his job to know everything, so he is the reader’s guide to the inner workings of your story’s setting and its rules. The genius is a resource not just for the reader and his fellow characters, but the writer as well. If you’re not exactly sure why or how something in your story works, ask the genius to explain it. You might be surprised by what he has to say, and how much sense it seems to make.

The Professional

Cool, collected, and competent, the professional is a character that functions like a Swiss Army knife. No matter the task, she always has the tools and skills to succeed. She’s not just good, but one of the best. Black Widow is the Avengers’ consummate professional. Whether she’s playing a god for a fool or fighting alien soldiers, she will do whatever it takes to accomplish the mission, and takes pride in her efficacy. While the leader is admired as a symbol, the professional inspires the troops with her practical proficiency, as an example they can strive toward. When other team members may falter or hesitate, she’s there to remind them they have a job to do, and all that matters in the end are results, not excuses.

As they are often extremely driven and goal-oriented, professionals make useful plot facilitators. When the action starts to slow down and your characters begin to navel-gaze, the professional can restore focus and get things moving again. Having a character constantly working to advance the plot can help you trim back some flowery prose and make you really examine the utility of your scenes. If it seems like your story is starting to drag, just ask yourself what Black Widow would do.

The Big Gun

When failure is absolutely not an option, you bring out the big gun. If the Avengers need an irresistible force, they call on the actual Norse God of Thunder, Thor. Now, your big gun doesn’t necessarily have to be a mighty warrior who literally puts the hammer down. He could be a wealthy venture capitalist, an influential politician, or just a very persuasive public speaker. This character is simply a living embodiment of power within the story, used to overcome the plot’s biggest obstacles. If the big gun gets involved, it is very unlikely that anything will be able to stop him.

The big gun is also a narrative device with many uses. The source of this character’s power will tell your reader a lot about the world of your story and what its inhabitants respect and fear. If your plot encounters a major roadblock, you can sometimes have big gun just power through it, using his fictional might to make the impossible happen. Finally, this character also makes a great barometer for the odds facing your literary assembly—if a new villain shows up and cleans Thor’s clock without breaking a sweat, your reader will immediately grasp how grim the situation is.

The Wild Card

When things look their most dire and there’s nothing left to lose, your team has one trick left up its sleeve. You honestly never know what’s going to happen when you play the wild card, but something definitely will. The Hulk is one of the biggest wild cards in comics, often doing just as much damage as good. He might smash the enemy commander into hamburger, or he might tear through the guts of an expensive helicarrier hurling jet planes at his coworkers. It’s very likely he will do both. Regardless, once the wild card is played, the conditions of the game drastically change in very unpredictable ways, creating opportunities to be exploited. Unlike the big gun, the wild card either has no control over the application of his chaotic power, or he is a capable agent with no loyalties, just as likely to cross the team as help them.

Whichever wild card you choose, it’s always good to have one in your hand to keep things interesting. If you find your story becoming too predictable, (perhaps your heroes are overcoming their challenges too easily, or maybe you’ve painted yourself into a corner and can’t think of an exit that isn’t cliché) the wild card can be your salvation. He is great at shaking up the status quo and bringing about reversals of fortune, and the reader often enjoys the countdown to when he will go off next. His colorful antics can also serve as a literary sleight of hand, distracting the reader from weaker scenes or thin plot points best not examined too closely. A character like this can help you figure out what’s really important in your story by fucking everything up. When you and the other characters try to put everything back together, you will be forced to re-evaluate those ideas you’ve been holding onto that may no longer serve the story you’re trying to tell. Don’t shake your head, we all do it. Every writer suffers from sentence separation anxiety, but the wild card cares not for your nonsense.

So there you have it: the essential elements of an ensemble, as exemplified by the Avengers. Of course, none of this is set in stone. These roles can be pretty fluid. For example, the leader might also be the genius, or the big gun may also be a professional, and so many rookies also moonlight as wild cards that it’s practically its own trope. Think of this list more like ingredients in a recipe than rules to be followed. There’s no “correct” combination, and you can subtract, add, and substitute to your taste. Please feel free to share your own ensemble recipes with us in the comments below.

About the author

BH Shepherd is a writer and a DJ from Texas. He graduated from Skidmore College in 2005 with degrees in English and Demonology after writing a thesis about Doctor Doom. A hardcore sci-fi geek, noir junkie and comic book prophet, BH Shepherd has spent a lot of time studying things that don’t exist.  He currently resides in Austin, where he is working on The Greatest Novel Ever.

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