Gail Z Martin – Writing the Ensemble Cast


Folks, please help me welcome back one of Magical Words’ favorite writing friends, novelist Gail Z Martin!  Gail is the author of Ice Forged in her new The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga (Orbit Books), plus The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven & Dark Lady’s Chosen ) and The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn and The Dread). She is also the author of two series of ebook short stories: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures and the Deadly Curiosities Series. Today she’s stopped by to talk with us about writing ensembles.  Take it away, Gail!


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A warrior, a mage, a thief and a bard walk into a bar….

Sounds like the beginning of a D&D adventure, right?

Of course, it also describes quite a few scenes in Lord of the Rings. And Guardians of the Flame. And come to think of it, my own Chronicles of the Necromancer series, as well as quite a few other epic fantasy sagas.

What’s the allure of the ensemble cast? How do you write for a rowdy crew and keep them in line? What’s the trick to making each member of the ensemble stand out enough that they don’t turn into a muddled, muddy mess for the reader?

I’ll confess that I much prefer ensemble cast stories to the solo squared-jaw one-man-army variety. For one thing, it seems more realistic. Sure, there are times you may be on your own behind enemy lines saving the world, but unless you’re a superhero, those times should be the exception, not the rule. Your odds of survival go way up when you have several people to watch your back and bring a varied set of skills to your adventure. I find the one man band type of stories a little too full of hubris for my taste. I like a hero who recognizes his limitations and can play well with others. And I like the way that the interplay between characters helps readers get to know the characters better than they otherwise might. Of course, those are my personal reading and writing biases, but since epic fantasy and even mythology (Odyssey and Iliad, anyone?) are full of ensemble casts, I’m betting I’m not the only one with those preferences.

How do you write for a rowdy crew? In some ways, it’s a lot like writing for a TV show with a standing cast of characters. Each character should have a reason to be part of the core team, with a unique expertise. Even if the group is newly formed or brought together by chance, personal chemistry should play a big role in their interactions: friendships, love interests, jealousy, rivalry. Don’t forget to think about personal weaknesses as well as strengths. Both will help to bring out the characters’ personality and will figure significantly into the plot.

And, as with episodic TV shows, giving each character the chance to be the central focus of a chapter or a plot thread can make for more interesting reading. You’ll also want to decide who gets Point of View (POV), and whether that changes as your series moves forward. Too often, we forget that every POV character is biased in what he/she sees and how that action is filtered through the character’s history, which means all reality is subjective and every narrator is at least slightly unreliable.

How can you help readers keep from confusing your characters? Certainly it helps to name your characters distinctively enough so that names don’t sound (or look) too much like one another, and to choose character descriptions that are different enough from one another that you don’t have several people who look so much alike that the reader can’t get a clear mental picture.

Your characters should also be distinctive in how they speak, what they wear, their personal backgrounds and their hopes, fears and unspoken agendas. A varied group of people who spend a lot of time together in close quarters are going to set off some sparks, good and bad, which makes for great interpersonal drama, even if they’re the best of friends (think of the TV show Friends, for example).

If your characters inhabit your brain the way mine do, it’s a noisy, crowded place. Pretend you’re the observer at the bar, and take note of what you see when a warrior, a mage and a bard walk into the pub!

The Hawthorn Moon Sneak Peek Event includes book giveaways, free excerpts and readings, all-new guest blog posts and author Q&A on 21 awesome partner sites around the globe. For a full list of where to go to get the goodies, visit

@GailZMartin Book Giveaway on Twitter—Every day from June 21 – June 28 I’ll be choosing someone at random from my Twitter followers to win a free signed book. Invite your friends to follow me—for every new 200 followers I gain between 6/21 – 6/28, I’ll give away an additional book, up to 20 books!





5 comments to Gail Z Martin – Writing the Ensemble Cast

  • sagablessed

    WELCOME! I don’t remember who it was, but another contributor here said to write like it was a movie or tv show. Sound advice.

    I have so many voice in my head I think I need medication! So do my co-workers, as I am always speaking bits of my stories aloud.

    I am trying to get my characters down pat, but without my own computer it is difficult right now. Ah well, like caring for your child, it just needs to get done.

  • Great to see you here, Gail. Thanks for an interesting post, and best of luck with the new project.

  • Razziecat

    This is a very useful post for me, as my WIP involves a large cast of troublemakers…er, characters, and I’m finding that it’s a lot like learning to juggle–how do I keep them all in the air at the same time, and keep the rhythm going? 😀 It helps to have a rough outline in which I first figure out which character’s POV is going to be the focus of each scene and each chapter. And writing a little backstory for each character helps me to develop distinct voices for each of them.

  • Vyton

    Very interesting post. My WIP has a semi-large group. This was very helpful. Thank you.

  • I feel I’ve always been pretty good at this. Much of my favorite works were always third person epic fantasy with either multiple viewpoints or one view but a whole group of characters. Honestly, there was a time when I didn’t even like to read first person novels. So, much of my practice has focused on that epic fantasy style that writing and the team of multiple characters seems to be my default. Every good hero/heroine always needs friends. Even Buffy had the Scoobies. 😉