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? [Read more…]