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Can We Be a Pod? Writing an Ensemble

Flickr Creative Commons: K State Research and Extensions

This past weekend, I had a pandemic-proper dinner on my screened-in porch with four good friends. It was kind of like camping—we all wore sweaters and jackets and warmed ourselves with whiskey and steaming bowls of chicken and dumplings and laughed a lot. At the end of the evening my friend Connie said, “We just have to be a pod for the winter so we can get through this together.”

Connie is on to something, and not just our most basic human need for friendship and companionship. While some great stories involve individuals facing down formidable obstacles, many of our most beloved stories involve ensembles, whether they’re the stories we’re living or the stories we’re writing. From Little Women to The Lord of the Rings to Lonesome Dove to A Game of Thrones, there’s an ineluctable draw to stories that show the complicated ties that bind people to one another and put them at odds with one another. Many of my favorite movie and TV shows are ensemble stories: The Princess Bride (based on the fine book of the same title), Doc Marten, Star Wars, Little Miss Sunshine, Poldark, The Godfather—I could go on and on.

I’ve written two novels that switch back and forth between the two POVs of the two main characters, but I’ve always wanted to write a genuine ensemble novel because I love them so much. It seems daunting, though. I’ve always written from a close third-person POV where I feel I come to know my characters so intimately I’m just transcribing their thoughts and feelings and actions. To write an ensemble, I’d have to know a lot of characters that intimately, and that’s challenging. To try to make it less so, I’ve tried to think through what makes a good ensemble novel work.

There’s a point. Of course it’s basic, but it is helpful to always remember the white line in the road before you start driving through the fog. All great ensemble stories take place around big-picture themes, with goals that drive the story forward. (Barbara Linn Probst’s recent WU column on “aboutness” [1] is an excellent guide for how to clarify this.) Every character has wants, dreams, goals of their own. Frodo wants to save the Shire, Sam wants to save Frodo, Aragorn wants to save the world of men, Boromir wants to save his kingdom—all of them coalescing around the battle between good and evil, and courage in the face of despair. On a tamer front, Jo March wants to write, Amy wants to be an artist, Meg wants love and family, and Beth wants the comforts of home, built around themes of growing up and forming identity apart from family and within family.

Every character adds something unique to the story. The best ensemble novels allow us insight into all the various aspects of the human experience; every character belongs in the story for a reason. That said, they need to be something more than tropes, more than the comic relief character, the conscience-of-the-group character, the fearful one, the risk-taker. Each character’s presence shines a light on the other characters, in the ways they act and react with each other. How many characters should you have in your ensemble? As many as you can write well, meaning they’re fully realized people with hopes and dreams and flaws and losses and quirks. Some of their strengths will bring them into conflict with other characters, as will their flaws. A corollary to this: Every character needs to sound unique, to have their own way of speaking, whether it’s formal or slang-filled, terse or verbose. You shouldn’t have to write “Joe said” or “Alexandra said” at the end of every line of dialogue; the way that character speaks should be an identifier in itself.

Characters disperse and come back together. I’ve been re-reading Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. One thing I’ve noticed is the way the characters’ separate stories come together, then split apart, then reunite in different configurations. He does a masterful job. It serves to keep the plot moving forward; also, the characters grow and change through their interactions with each other and through the experiences they have when they’re apart. That growth and change for multiple characters is a key part of a good ensemble novel.

Have you written an ensemble story? What has been most challenging? What has helped you carry it off?

About Kathleen McCleary [2]

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.