One Main Character versus an Ensemble Cast

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When I first started developing the concept for my upcoming novel, Black Spot, there were six main characters, three women and three men. But the more I worked on it, the more interested I became in the story of just one character. She didn’t mean to dominate – she wasn’t that kind of girl – but it ended up happening anyway. She was just so much more interesting – her story was just so much more interesting – and eventually all the other characters started drifting away.

Sometimes a character is so powerful that they insist on having their own story and sometimes a story is so varied that it needs an ensemble cast to tell it properly. There are pros and cons to each choice so make sure you consider them all.

One Main Character
Pros
*There are greater opportunities for in-depth character development – when you’re working with one main character, you can devote almost all of your character development time to that person. You can give them an intricate backstory and details that may not appear in the book but that inform what happens in the book to make them a complex character with many, many layers.

*Conversely, you don’t need to do as much character development for your other characters – while you still want them to be complex characters, you can get away with them being less complex because so much of the focus (both yours and the readers) will be on the main character.

Cons
*Boredom can set in a little more easily – writing one main character is a bit like having just one friend; no matter how much you like them, sometimes you just want to spend time with someone else. And if you feel this way writing the character, there’s the potential for your readers to feel the same way when reading about the character. But there are plenty of one main character books, so it can be done. It just needs to be done well.

*Generally, with one main character, the book must be from that main character’s perspective only. It can limit how much and when you are able to reveal plot points as the story progresses. Some plots suit this kind of limitation, especially when every other character already knows what’s going on, but others really struggle under the weight of it. You need to be really sure one main character suits the story you are trying to tell.

Tip
*If you have one main character, they don’t have to be likeable but it sure helps. If they can’t be likeable, perhaps it’s enough to be relatable. At the very least, they should be absolutely intriguing. If they aren’t any of these things, think about how long a reader would be willing to spend with them. If it isn’t for the length of an entire book, then you’re going to have a problem.

Ensemble Cast
Pros
*You can withhold information without using writers’ tricks – one of my greatest annoyances is writers withholding information for too long and doing it in ridiculous ways just to lengthen the suspense of a story. In the first chapter of The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty, a wife finds a letter addressed to her from her husband, marked that it should only be read in the event of his death. Despite his completely unconvincing reason about why she shouldn’t read it now, it takes her 150 pages to finally open it. But with an ensemble cast, you can legitimately withhold information because each character can only know as much as they know unless they are specifically told. It’s a great way to build suspense without pissing off the reader.

*It’s more interesting to write from the perspectives of a variety of people – sometimes when you’re writing about one main character, you can get really sick of that person. But when each chapter or section switches between several viewpoints, it can help to keep you motivated and the writing flowing.

*It’s a great way to explore relationships from both sides – sometimes this isn’t what you want (a romance novel generally needs to be from one person’s perspective to help maintain the drama) but when you do, multiple perspectives give the reader the chance to see both sides of a story.

Cons
*It involves more character development work – with an ensemble cast, the readers expect them all to have different backgrounds, different motivations, different ambitions, different morals, different voices, different styles of dialogue, and on and on it goes. It can add up to a heck of a lot more work for the writer.

Tip
*If you choose to write an ensemble cast, make sure to give each of them enough exposure to justify including their perspective in the novel. If you’re just doing it because you can’t think of another way to reveal a plot point you need to reveal and that person only gets one chapter to narrate, the reader will resent it. Make up your mind – either they’re important enough for you to use them properly or they’re not.

*****

The great thing about making the decision between one main character and an ensemble cast is that there is no wrong decision as long as you know and respect the benefits and limitations of each and then execute your choice well.

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