A story with an ensemble cast is pretty much a story with multiple protagonists: each character of the “main cast” gives a significant contribution to the narrative, they have roughly an equal amount of importance and each can influence the other’s journey through the story.
An ensemble cast allows the writer to display different situations or give different takes on the same situation. The structure of the narrative is completely different from a story with a single protagonist because it’s not linear.
Normally a story with just one hero would follow him without interruptions, but multiple protagonists means multiple actions happening at the same time. So the narration will have to jump from one character to another but still follow the logic of the story.
To give you a practical example let’s look at how Orange is the new black deals with its ensemble cast.
Immediately after season 1 begun we were introduced to a great number of character that came into contact with Piper, and as the show progressed into season 2 Piper was no longer the only protagonist, but one of the many.
To see better what are the rules to write a story with an ensemble cast, let’s look at the newly released season 6.
Introducing the characters
Naturally a show that has multiple protagonists will have to spend more time introducing them to the audience. That’s why it’s important to find a way to not only save time but make sure that the introduction is effective.
Also, since each character carries a whole story with him, the audience will need to know his goal, his personality and the obstacles he is about to face.
In the very first scene of the first episode, OITNB finds an expedient to showcase most of the character in a simple but effective way. Suzanne, one of the protagonists and a mentally ill inmate, hallucinates about her friends being in a tv show and through her eyes we find out what’s happening to them.
- Nicky dressed like a dog mentions her mother and her narcissism, an introduction to the problem she’ll have later in the season with her father’s narcissistic personality.
- Daya is shown in a modern dance bit with two guards which alludes to the violence she’s victim of, the cause of the pain that will kick start her journey into addiction.
- Frieda is shown mimicking suicide by cutting her veins with a card, she actually does try to kill herself because she’s afraid to be found by her enemies: Barb and Carol.
- Red, dressed as a clown, talks about loyalty and the importance of the girls staying together, a reference to the fact that despite her faith in her girls, she’ll be betrayed.
- Piper’s Jeopardy round revolves around finding Alex, as her story in the beginning of the season.
- Maria and Gloria are preparing to fight each other in the ring, later they will almost be able to do that in person but they’ll have to resort to verbal attacks for the rest of the season.
- Cindy as a detective sings to Suzanne that she should shut up about their secret, she’ll try to keep this secret from everyone else for the whole season.
How to distinguish a protagonist from a supporting character in an ensemble
In a story with a single protagonist it’s easy to distinguish the hero from the supporting characters (who doesn’t have a central role in the story but is simply there to enrich the main narrative).
While in a story with an ensemble cast it’s a little bit harder. What really differentiates the supporting characters from one of the protagonists is that they don’t have an arc. In an ensemble each character must go through challenges to get his goal and change in the process. Supporting characters are the ones that either provide those challenges (they might be the “minions” of the villain) or help one of the protagonists in their quest.
In OITNB things get tricky because, unlike other series where the introduction to one of the protagonist is usually given more time and importance, all characters supporting or not are introduced in a similar fashion.
In season 6 one of the supporting characters displayed is Daddy, an inmate of D block who smuggles and sells drugs for Barb, one of the two main villains.
The show gives her a flashback like it did with all the main character and some other supporting roles in the past, hinting that she might have a bigger role in the seasons to come.
She has a close relationship with one of the protagonists (Daya) but she never really undergoes an arc. Her highs and lows are never really given much importance and she doesn’t change during the season.
On the other hand we follow Daya in her struggle to battle the temptation of drugs and to find a way to provide herself more drugs later. At the end of the season, is a completely different person and her change is emphasized by her mother’s preoccupation.
How to give each character’s story enough time to develop
It’s important to give each story an equal amount of time, but this task is not easy. Since OITNB has such a large number of characters the only tool the series can use to give each one of them equal exposure is a “rotation”.
In season 6, nothing better than the final scene of season 6 reinforces that message: as Taystee, an innocent person, is brought to prison to spend the rest of her life behind bars, Piper is leaving on her brother’s car after being allowed early release. Both those events were caused by a bug in a corrupted system.
Basically not all stories are introduced and finished at the same time, as one character arc is finished, the arc of a different character begins.
For example Nicky’s character arc revolving around her father starts on episode 3 and it ends on episode 4, while Gloria’s arc (revolving around her dance class) starts on episode 6 and ends towards the final episode.
Other characters are given a little more importance because they are constantly present during the season. But even in their cases, the stories follow two or more different arcs.
Piper’s first arc: she tries to find Alex, misunderstands Red’s message and think that she’s dead, the arc ends when the two meet each other.
Piper’s second arc: she tries to bring kickball back into the prison, deals with Baddison’s interference, finds out that she’s going to be released.
Taystee’s first arc: she meets an old friend that has now become a prison guard, she finds out that she’s risking a life sentence, she asks help to Caputo.
Taystee’s second arc: she finds out that she has the support of the “Black lives matter” movement, her and Caputo try to use the fame of her case to win the trial, she is found guilty and goes back to prison.
The ensemble cast is a powerful tool because it allows the writer, not only to send a message to the audience, but to give multiple examples to prove his point.
Since season 1 the message that Orange is the new black has been trying to give us is that the system is rigged.