Please welcome back H.M. Bouwman H.M. (Heather) Bouwman as our guest today. Heather is the author of two middle grade children’s fantasy novels—most recently, A Crack in the Sea (Putnam/PRH, 2017). She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her two kids, and she teaches early American literature and creative writing at the University of St. Thomas.
The Gang’s All Here
When I wrote and revised my recent middle-grade novel, A Crack in the Sea, I spent a lot of time thinking about ensemble casts and how they work. Crack (as my editor and agent often called it; I always worried that somehow our emails were going to get tagged for illegal activity) was a multiplotted novel in which several of the plots—and their respective protagonists—eventually came together; and there wasn’t a clear “winner” in the protagonist category. They were all important to me and, I hoped, to the reader. But how does an ensemble cast work in a novel, and how can authors keep readers engaged when there isn’t one main character for them to bond with?
The Ensemble Novel: Defined
There are several kinds of novels that we generally think of as having ensemble casts. There’s an almost-ensemble cast, in which many characters are working together on a particular project, and the reader often moves from a focus on one character to another as the project progresses. Heist books (and movies) often fit in this category, and in children’s novels, Varian Johnson’s excellent Great Greene Heist and its sequel come to mind. Often in these books, however, there are one or two characters who emerge as the key players (which is why I would call them almost ensemble casts); in Johnson’s book it’s the Jackson Greene of the title. All the other characters agree that this person is their leader, and although the action of the book might be equally shared, the thematic interest and character development is more focused on the lead character.
In children’s literature we can also find an ensemble type known as the family story, an old-fashioned novel that focuses equally on all the siblings in a family. (Think of books by classic storytellers like E. Nesbit, Edward Eager, Sydney Taylor and Elizabeth Enright.) There aren’t many of these kinds of novels today—maybe in part because families are often smaller?—but Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks series is a good example. Various chapters will focus on different siblings as they each get their own adventures; plots are generally episodic; all characters have some moments of growth and change. An adult analogy might be a friends’ reunion story, like the movie The Big Chill.
Something (Or Somethings) Shared: The Anchor
But the type of ensemble story that interests me the most contains a varied group cast—pulled together for reasons they may not even know about or understand—and multiple story lines, and often contains multiples of other things, too: settings, time periods. But somehow it all pulls together. (Think of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, for example.) Without a single protagonist, single plot, sometimes without even a single setting or time period, we might ask how the book manages to hold together at all?
The answer is fairly simple, really: there needs to be something (or somethings) that is shared, and you as the author need to know what that is and focus on it. In Goon Squad the connecting threads are the exploring of various aspects of the music industry; the periodic musings on the passing of time; the reader’s own interest in how characters’ lives briefly intersect; and the many characters’ inexorable movement toward a unifying event at the end of the novel—a shared concert. Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down opens with a shooting; the rest of the book, though it moves among seventeen or so (I lost count…!) viewpoint characters and follows their stories, keeps returning to the question of what happened at that shooting—and how the community is affected by it. That’s not only a plot moment but an important thematic consideration, and it makes for a gripping read. Goon Squad moves toward a key scene; How it Went Down moves away from its instigating scene. But in both cases there is a moment where the ensemble characters thematically come together (though in neither book are they all actually present together—there’s no group hug moment).
It seems to me that a key scene probably isn’t necessary in an ensemble novel, but it sure helps. Without that key moment, the author needs to draw stronger thematic connections. In my own novel, the thematic connections have to do with setting: the characters are all forced immigrants, and they are all as a result looking for a new home. Setting, therefore, becomes key in this book, and I spent more time developing the ocean setting of the second world than I might otherwise have done.
At the same time, I worried that my readers might be looking for a protagonist; but it was important to me that that wish didn’t get filled. It’s important to the story that there are many immigrants and refugees (and some kids who are neither), and they are all important. Several key characters come together in the final quarter or so of the novel—the storylines merge—but I didn’t want one character to rise from that pile as the hero. When many of the characters were working together at the end of the book, I moved point of view with each chapter as a way of keeping the protagonist position in flux; and with the one plot that couldn’t merge with the others (it was in a different time period), I tried to show the causal connection between it and the other story, and I ended with that protagonist so that she wouldn’t feel like simply “background” to the rest of the book.
Juggling an ensemble cast is tricky. My big piece of advice, after trying it myself, is to think of the ensemble cast as something that needs an anchor: a shared activity that drives the plot, a strong thematic through-line, a particular moment in time or a particular group dynamic that the book is exploring. And you may find that you need to write this “anchor” more fully—you might need to underscore those connecting lines with a thicker Sharpie—than you would in a novel with a single protagonist.
I’ve talked mostly about ensemble casts in novels for young people. What are some great ensemble cast novels written for adults? And are there other craft considerations you’d want to add to the discussion as you think about these adult books?