Ensemble Voices

A novel told through a wide assortment of characters allows the author greater scope to explore where the novel’s plot lines take him. Yet invariably I as a reader end up feeling less involved with the proceedings. I just can’t put my emotional stock in so many characters. To clarify, I am discussing a continuous narrative, not broken into Roshomon-like parts wherein each character discusses the same events from different points of view. 

I will point out several basic problems with the ensemble approach. First and foremost, it virtually guarantees that the story will be slighter in impact. How could it not? As a reader, rather than immersing yourself in one point of view, allowing that person to take over your own thought processes, you are jumping from one person’s head to another. I can make that switch with maybe one or two other characters, but even then I’m hoping that the protagonist will govern most of the scenes. Like any reader, I form a loyalty to the person who dominates the proceedings.

Second, an ensemble cast demands strong plotting. If character and plot are regarded as two ends on a balance scale, the more you feed into one, the less will be allotted for the other. If you are using a variety of characters to tell a story, that means that you are paying more attention to plot. The reader won’t delve as deeply into the characters, so the concomitant result is that more plot events are needed to entertain us. 

Third, setting up an ensemble cast will likely confuse readers during the opening segment of the book. We are looking for a story thread to follow, and if we keep on meeting new people, that thread is obscured by all the bustling about. Once a reader feels her emotions are being pulled in too many directions, she may put the book down.

The inherent emotional slightness of a tale told by an ensemble cast needs to be factored into your calculations when devising the initial outline. You need compelling plot events that consume your multiple characters. Further, you should avoid assigning really good material to a character the reader doesn't know well enough to care about. Otherwise, the book may be relegated to the label: busy but not good.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with a single character’s name in your global search window. Find which scenes he inhabits and write down what he does in a list of single-sentence entries. If he governs any scenes early on, the reader is given a signal to regard him as more important. Yet what happens to him later? If he is crowded aside by later developments to other characters, haven’t you left the reader hanging? Why did they spend so much time with that guy if he’s just going to drop out of the book?

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