Ensembles are tricky to balance, splitting an audience’s attention. But the results are worth it. Ensembles can capture a wider range of viewpoints and arcs. Sharing attention gives everyone room to make mistakes since the story doesn’t depend on one person making the right choices every time. In the long run, ensemble shows tend to last longer and have more stories to tell.
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The best shows set up a community in their pilot, giving us clear characters, dynamics, and arcs. So how exactly does one create a group of characters that audiences want to hang out with each week? We list four ways below.
1. Memorable Intros
Introductions give characters a solid foundation to play off of for the rest of the script. Take Claws on TNT for example. Main character Desna is first introduced by her “perfect nails (WHITE AND GOLD FRENCH MANICURE).” This not only ties her into the title and the setting – a nail salon – but the colors establish her as the classy queen bee of the place. For main characters especially, it can be useful to dole out the intro in pieces. Here, we define Desna from an element – her nails – that she prides herself on.
When we see Desna, she is “curvy mid-40’s realness in full effect, dark good looks, sexy and formidable.” This is an incredibly phrased introduction, showing how she embraces her looks, using it as power.
Her introduction is established through action as well. We see how she affects the people around her. Desna’s intro, a little more than a page, involves a crude redneck taking her parking space. When she walks towards him, he “makes a big show of HOLDING THE DOOR for her, Mr. Chivalry all the sudden.” This switch from lewd redneck to wannabe prince charming shows Desna’s power on the people around her.
2. A New Character
Introducing a new character to the group in a pilot is a classic move. Sure, there are sloppy ways to do it – a bland cool guy enters and makes fun of his wacky co-workers. But, done well, it builds in the status quo and the new tension all at once. Take for example Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which premiered on FOX, and is now on NBC.
On page 8, we meet the precinct’s new captain, Holt. The squad has been guessing about what Holt will be like since page 5, so some stakes are established. Amy says “If I’m ever gonna make Captain I need a good mentor.” Jake guesses that Holt will be a “washed-up pencil-pusher” or an “uptight politician,” because Jake sees himself as the rebellious cop in action movies. Amy will try to win approval, and Jake will rebel, setting up their arcs.
A new character helps establish the environment quickly since they need to be shown around. From page 10-13, Terry gives Holt descriptions for the other characters in the precinct, alongside brief flashbacks.
The new character can be an inciting incident, establishing why this world will be changed from now on. On page 13, the end of act one, Holt says “I’m going to do my damndest to make this the best precinct in New York City,” and he’ll start by focusing on Jake, giving him more discipline. Characters and relationships are the plots here, as Holt tries to make Jake a better cop, and Jake tries to keep his own independence.
This is under the umbrella of establishing clear dynamics between each of your characters. But rivalries are a specific trope that is useful, establishing a clear conflict to explore in future episodes. In Brooklyn Nine-Nine, there are two rivalries. Amy and Jake have a bet going on who can solve the most cases. And Jake and Holt are fighting to establish dominance.
Of course, there’s a sloppy way to do a rivalry in a pilot – two characters get into a fight and declare they’re mortal enemies and will tear each other down. But two characters could be at odds with each other in less direct ways.
In The Good Place on NBC, Eleanor considers Tahani her rival. This starts when Tahani calls Eleanor’s house “cute and tiny. It’s like a little child’s plaything, like for a family of mice or a fancy little dog… It’s just so sweet and teensy, just like you. Boop.” Tahani is tall and glamorous and has a giant house.
Tahani is condescending to everyone, so she doesn’t realize that she’s sparked all of Eleanor’s insecurities. So Eleanor later calls Tahani a “condescending birch,” and a “butthead.” So, this starts a pattern of passive-aggressive insults, which makes them stand out in “The Good Place” where everyone is supposed to be saintly.
A rivalry is just one of many possible dynamics. In an ensemble show, if you can not only establish dynamics between the main character and the side characters, but between the side characters and each other, then the show feels extra complete. Ideally, each of the characters should challenge different aspects of each other. Like in The Good Place, chatty Tahani is paired up with silent monk Jianyu, and Tahani tries to talk for Jianyu and pretend that they’re perfect, but they’ve just met so she’s unsure.
4. Empathetic Villains
Pure evil characters are by definition static characters. We don’t need to see any more serial killers who are supposed to be interesting because they like classical arts. If a villain is evil all the way through, they can’t go through an arc, and the audience can lose interest.
So, instead, aim for a villain who thinks they’re the hero. In Jane the Virgin, Petra does terrible things, but there are enough in-between moments that she remains compelling.
Petra tries to comfort her husband Rafael with a blow job, overhears that he’s thinking about divorcing her, and plans to inseminate herself with his sperm without telling him. It’s a manipulative thing to do, but by then we have evidence that he was about to leave her after she had been his support while he was fighting cancer. He’s the jerk in this scenario, and she’s trying to keep them together. We understand her desperation and want to keep watching what she’ll do. She’s manipulative because she wants to hold onto the status quo. Her fear of change makes sense.
Bonus: Other Tools
Backstories don’t need to be lengthy, but they’re useful. Backstories give context into the character’s relationships. Backstories reassure the audience that these characters existed before today and make the world feel full.
Not all of the tropes listed here are needed in ensemble shows, but these examples can show us how great ensembles are built. Sure, other factors help make it work, like casting and later episodes. But it starts with the script. Written well, a great ensemble is infectious, making the audience feel like they’re a part of the gang. Welcome!
Charlotte Stauffer is an Atlanta-born screenwriter. She’s currently working at the Georgia Film Academy, and running a table read series called The Page On Stage with the Atlanta Film Society. She can be found on Twitter @goodwonky and instagram at @charlielucile.
Photo credit: FOX