What is an ensemble cast?
Most narrations (books and movies) have a main character or a Protagonist who develops the plot. What if a narration has more than one main character? For example, FRIENDS.
The sitcom FRIENDS has no one main character, but six main characters; each of the six characters has (almost) equal screentime and importance to the plot. This is called an ensemble cast.
Common mistakes about the ensemble cast
Don’t confuse non-fiction list books and ensemble-cast stories. List books have a unifying thread. For example, a list book of women in science is a collection of biographies. However, there is no Narrative Structure and a story in list books because they are not fiction. In an ensemble cast, first and foremost, we need a Narrative Structure; Beginning-Middle-End.
There is a difference between a story with many characters and an ensemble cast. As an example imagine a story that happens in a school and the teacher asks a question. If three students answer the question, this doesn’t make them an ensemble cast, even though we know their names. Their role is to illuminate the discussion. It would be an ensemble cast if those students have their individual characteristics and traits and more importantly, play an important (and equal role) in developing the story. In contrast, in a story with many characters, one character is the main character (or the Protagonist). The story is about the main character and other characters, directly or indirectly, are related to the main character.
Discussing the following picture books with an ensemble cast help understand the difference.
An ensemble cast in picture books
NO BORING STORIES! (2018) by Julie Falatko and Charles Santoso has five animal characters: a mole, a weevil, a crab, a babirusa, and a bunny. The first four belong to a critique group and the fifth one—the bunny—insists to join their group. The first two spreads include two characters: the bunny and the mole. The third spread brings the rest of the characters to the story. Yet, such a setting in introducing characters doesn’t necessarily form an ensemble cast. A story with many characters could also introduce all characters on the initial spreads!
This story has an ensemble cast because it does NOT have one main character. In the beginning, it seems that the mole is the main character because it is the organizer of the critique group. However, as the story develops we see that each character has a role in the story. More importantly, each character has individual characteristics and traits.
Another example is THE GREAT INDOORS (2019) by Julie Falatko and Ruth Chan. It is the story of a group of animals who spend their summer holiday inside a house. A bear family, a beaver family, a deer and a skunks form the ensemble cast of this book. Each of them has a role in messing up things in the house. The story has no main character.
Another example with human characters is THE RAMBLE SHAMBLE CHILDREN (2021) by Christina Soontornvat and Lauren Castillo. The story has five child characters who live in a house, alone.
XO, EXOPLANET (2021) by Deborah Underwood and Jorge Lacera has also an ensemble cast. Each planet of the solar system is one character.
I search for ensemble picture books in which characters are more distinctive and haven’t found any. If you know any, please let me know in the comments.
I write blog posts about the craft of writing picture books regularly. The list of the previous posts is on the PictureBookPedia. Also, I publish a quarterly newsletter that includes links to my recent blog posts.