Den of the Cyphered Wolf

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Getting Meta: The Ensemble Cast, POV and Jordon Syndrome

Why the heck do people love Joss Wheden so much. Well for one he writes great dialogue, but that's not what I'm here to talk about. Joss Whedon has mastered writing for an ensemble cast.

Up until relatively recently most television shows would have a main character, and everything that happened on that show had to be related to that main character. Now this isn't always a bad thing, but sometimes it does annoying lead to characters who serve no other purpose than to get the main character into action or define the main character by contrast.

A good ensemble cast is the opposite of this. Most of characters have something interesting going on sometimes so much so that you don't care about what the heck is going on with the quote on quote protagonist. Like I said Whedon is a master of this so let's use one of his shows as an example, Angel. Let's face it there were a lot of episodes that were not devoted to the title character, in fact one of my favorite ones "That Old Gang of Mine" barley features him. That episode is all about Gunn.

A better example would probably be Battlestar Galactica. I dare you to tell me who the most important character in that show was.

It's hard for me to explain why people like ensemble casts. Maybe it's because they allow for more complicated characters and plots, though that is just my opinion.

The hard part in writing an ensemble cast is knowing when to shift the story's point of view. I'm not talking about first person and second person and all that yada ya. I mean who the story is choosing to focus on at the moment. This is why every now and again you'll get a Zeppo episode.

Let's say you have a story with two characters who are not physically in the same space. When and how do you let the audience know I'm taking a break from Alice to talk about Bob?

If you talk about Bob for too long there could be problems. What happens if the audience doesn't particularly like Bob or his story arc and would rather hear about what Alice is up to, or what if you spend so much time with Bob the audience forgets something is going down with Alice or that she even existed, or worse what if you pull a Jordon and never get back to this cool thing that was happening with Alice even if it was really important.

Late author Robert Jordon is best known for his Wheel of Time series. I haven't read past about book 8 for the following reason. In book 4 Jordon sets up a pretty cool plot point involving a character, Perrin, creating an army to defend is neighbors and wondering if that would be cool with his Queen. That plot point doesn't get revisited until book 10. This was to me the most interesting character and he doesn't even show up for at least another book after that because Jordon had so many characters and was doing so much with them.

Sometimes having an ensemble cast can be bad for that reason, which leads me to what I'll right about in my next one of these, economy of narrative: telling a good story in a limited time and space.

Note: After Jordon died Brandon Sanderson was hired to wrap up the series. I hear he's doing a good job a tying together lose ends and getting back to reading the books is on my list of things I should be doing.

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