Freeform Fridays: Writing an Ensemble Cast (Lessons from Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers”)


So, I’ve gone to see two movies over the last couple of weeks. For me, that’s a lot—I tend to only emerge for “big” stuff like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, and get everything else on DVD. They were Dark Shadows (which is going to have its own post eventually—I spent much of the movie with my face in my palm so I haven’t quite figured out what to say about it) and The Avengers.

I could seriously write a whole post on how much I loved this movie—I’m seriously considering going to see it again, and I’ve NEVER watched the same movie twice in theaters—but that’s not the focus of this post, so I’ll move on to the real topic: what we, as writers, can learn about writing an ensemble cast from this lovely superhero flick.

  1.    There needs to be conflict.

Conflict is important to all writing, but never is it more necessary than when you are working with an ensemble cast. It’s absolutely unrealistic to expect to get the different personalities necessary to make up a team in the same room together and have them all hold hands and get along right away. It’s even preferable to have a character like Tony Stark, who spends most of the first half of The Avengers quipping at the others and being a pain. Conflict between characters in an ensemble cast equals dynamic scenes and even laugh-out-loud funny moments that can ease the tension of your plot a bit and keep your reader intrigued.

 

2.      …but, there also needs to be a certain amount of harmony.

If your characters do nothing BUT bicker all the time, I doubt very much that anything is EVER going to get done. Someone’s in danger? S/he will probably die while everybody’s hashing it out. Evil supervillain poised to take over Earth with an alien army? Done, while Steve and Tony are still butting heads. When the push comes to shove, your characters HAVE to work well together, whether they like one another or not, so that they CAN save the day.

It also bears mentioning that it’s always a good idea to have at least two characters in the group who kind of “get” each other, achieved to great effect in The Avengers with RDJ’s Tony Stark and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner. Stark pokes Banner and is generally a pain in his neck, to be sure, but he has an understanding of the scientific aspect that none of the others do, and Banner seems to see right past Stark’s jokey exterior to the softness underneath. They don’t necessarily “like” one another, but each UNDERSTANDS the other, and that understanding is palpable in many of their scenes.

Here they are being total bros. In identically hideous shirts. :3

3.      Choose the right characters/interactions for each scene.

One of the best scenes in The Avengers, in my humble opinion, was the scene where Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is “interrogating” Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. Both actors played their parts perfectly, and the scene simply would not have worked had it been, say, Tony Stark or Steve Rogers in Black Widow’s place. There are other scenes that illustrate this point, but this one really stuck out when I was considering how I was going to write this post. Choose the right characters and the right dynamics to emphasize in a scene, and you will come out with something tense and powerful. Choose the wrong characters, and the scene will fall flatter than a cake after the oven door has been slammed shut.

4.      As you get toward the end, try to utilize a polarizing/drastic event to show how the characters have grown together.

The moment when Tony Stark falls to the ground made everyone in the theater that I was in gasp, and you can see that it catches Tony’s fellows off guard as well. This concern—this deep caring for “one of their own”– is what really brings this ensemble cast together. Why this, and not the scenes where they’re all fighting together in a completely unified group? Because this scene packs an emotional punch, and readers/watchers almost always connect to scenes in an EMOTIONAL way rather than a strictly rational way. So give your ensemble cast a tragedy to deal with, even if it’s only for a couple of minutes. Put one of their makeshift “family” in danger and watch for a moment, allowing your readers to feel like it could be their sibling/parent/child/lover/best friend lying there on the ground, dead or dying or in grave danger. Punching your readers/watchers in the gut can be a good thing—just don’t do it every scene/episode/chapter or they WILL come to hate you. (I’m looking at you, Supernatural season 7.)

So that’s it. If you’ve enjoyed this blog post, or have questions/comments/criticisms, go ahead and drop a comment below.