A while back, I was talking with a friend and fellow writer about a future project. While describing it, I called it a “Team story,” and then squinted.
“Is there a better word for that? Like, a story where your characters are one team?”
And I don’t remember if I stopped trying to explain or she cut me off, but she answered, “An ensemble cast. You’re talking about an ensemble cast.”
And I remember thinking, “Is that what I’m talking about?” In the moment I was just like, “Sure,” but I kept thinking about it for a while because, in typical bureaucrat fashion, I wanted to find the perfect heading to sort my ideas under and I knew it wasn’t “ensemble cast.”
Because Game of Thrones has an ensemble cast, but it is not a story about a united team.
Something like Friends, however, does star an ensemble cast while also presenting those characters as one, cohesive unit for the audience to love.
And it’s the latter part–the team part–that I was trying to get at. I now have two future projects that are going to require a balanced team with interesting dynamics, and because my life this week has been steeped in Star Wars, I’ve been thinking a lot about highly dynamic, synergetic teams.
Or–as I have ultimately, lazily classified them in my head–crews.
So let’s talk about them.
Not whether they’re good or bad, but just what I’m learning from looking at / remembering a few standout examples.
What I’ve Learned About Crews (So Far)
Seriously, part of the reason The Mandalorian feels so fresh is because it’s the only popular Star Wars story that doesn’t have a crew.
Anyway, let’s get into it:
- Smaller crews feel clean, and give everyone time to shine, but large crews are totally possible if you make them super charming. By my count, there were 8-9 people on the Serenity, but Joss Whedon made all of them super lovable and interesting anyway, in part by all of them unique Specializations and Plot Functions.
- Every member of a crew needs to have a Specialization (pilot, mechanic, fighter, lockpicker, etc.) but they also need to serve a Plot Function (comic relief, responsibility anchor, protagonist).
- Specializations vary depending on what you’re writing, but when it comes to Plot Functions, memorable crews usually seem to have the following:
- A Protagonist who usually has to learn to become good at their Specialization or learn a different skill entirely. Luke and Aang are prime examples of protagonists learning Specializations as parts of their arcs. On the other hand, Peter Quill from Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t learn anything–he’s just good at a handful of things and has emotional arcs instead.
- A Responsibility Anchor who steps in to keep the plot moving in the right direction. Princess Leia and Gamora are really popular standouts, but Kanan Jarrus from Star Wars: Rebels and Cere Junda from *deep breath* Star Wars: Jedi: Fallen Order are the two I experienced the most this week.
- A Romantic Interest. Not gonna go in-depth here.
- Comic Relief. Also not gonna go in-depth here. But I will point out that there’s almost always more than one comic relief in a good crew.
- The Muscle. The usually gentle, often giant who’s going to crack their knuckles and walk into a bunch of enemies and come back fine. Familiar examples are Chewie and Groot. Significantly different examples are Toph Beifong from Avatar, River Tam from Firefly, and Nightsister Merrin from Fallen Order who, and this is true, is my waifu. I am a grown man who never once said anyone anywhere was his waifu because I didn’t get it, but now I get it.
- A Scrappy Person. This is a weird one, but there’s often a person who’s . . . bad at fighting even though they want to be good at it? Or who often need saving. Classic example, even though it doesn’t seem like it at first: Han. Yes, he will chase Stormtroopers down a hallway, firing his blaster, but he’ll be back in 3 seconds, running from a hangarful of them. Sokka is another example.
- Someone who doesn’t speak Common or who is hard to understand for some other reason. I know this is weird, but it’s real. It’s obviously nonessential, but you can put in characters who don’t speak Common. They’ll just need another character to answer all of their questions in Common, thus translating, and they’ll need to emote well. And I have to take a moment here to remind everyone that the crew of the Millennium Falcon has two–fucking two–characters audiences love even though they can’t understand anything they’re saying. To this day, that blows my mind. Aside from R2 and Chewie, Groot is one of my favorites.
- The heart of the team–an Emotional Anchor. Someone caring to keep the team together by helping them solve differences, the single greatest example of which is Steven from Steven Universe.
- And finally, a cute companion! Also obviously nonessential, but so adorable when they’re done right. Like Appa! And I would say BB-8 if he wasn’t attached to a series of films that wound up being one of the most disappointing trilogies of all time.
- As you’ve probably noticed, those nine Functions are not limited to one character each, or even one per crew. Your Protagonist might also be the Scrappy Person, like Ezra Bridger from Rebels. Your muscle might not speak Common, like Groot. You might, like Guardians, have three separate characters who could all count as the Muscle. Making that composition–and playing with it–is one of the major parts of making a crew.
- But the other major part is making sure that your composition has characters who all feel unique from each other but also have good chemistry. They should have different, maybe even conflicting personalities, but they also need to be able to engage with each other in a way that’s entertaining. If two of your characters are stuck in the same room together and you can’t write an interesting or fun scene with them, something’s wrong.
Two Crews That Didn’t Work for Me
I’m still trying to be more positive on here, but I do have to point out the two crews I didn’t find interesting (and explain why).
I watched 6 or 7 episodes of Rebels while working on my computer, and I ultimately wasn’t hooked for a few reasons. The reason related to this post: the crew was split into two extremes.
On one hand, you had Ezra, Zeb, and Chopper who were always bickering and playing pranks on each other.
On the other hand, you had Hera, Sabine, and Kanan who were all super capable and professional.
I’m sure the show gets better, but the team chemistry just wasn’t there. Everyone had good Specializations, their Plot Functions were super clear, and they all looked unique from each other, but they all felt like they were sharing two personalities, so I ultimately had to bail.
Now, I’m ending here with a crew most people haven’t experienced because it comes with a lesson.
Pictured above is the entire crew. From left to right, it’s BD-1, a little droid who specializes as the hacker and can’t speak Common. Next is Greez, the pilot and comic relief. Then there’s Cere Junda, the Designated Plot-Driver and secondary hacker. Cal is our redheaded Protagonist. And last is Nightsister Merrin, who’s arguably the Muscle (because Cal would be, but she’s a space witch who saves his life a ton) and is also, believe it or not from this picture, more Comic Relief.
So what’s the lesson here?
Never have one member of the crew join super late in the story.
Nightsister Merrin doesn’t join the Mantis until insanely late in the game. Seriously, she joined my crew last night, after, like, 20 hours of playtime. Which is bizarre because . . .
. . . this crew is not complete without her.
This is not a waifu joke; seriously, dialogue in the Mantis was so boring before she joined.
For 20+ hours, cutscenes with the crew were extremely one-note. Cal was goal-oriented, Cere was goal-oriented, BD-1 was goal-oriented, and Greez, while charming, just followed orders and complained. Very quickly, everyone believed in and supported each other, so there was just nothing to look forward to in their interactions. Even a mid-game semi-twist with Cere didn’t throw off the “we have to keep fighting for what’s right” vibe.
After Merrin, dialogue is likely to take a weird turn when she asks things like, “What Empire?” because she grew up on Dathomir and has no idea the First Galactic Empire even exists. When Cere asks her about her magic, Greez might compare it to the time he ate a huge steak to win a prize, and Merrin might say–against all odds and in perfect, non-combative monotone, “Yes. My magic is exactly like eating steak.”
And just . . . h’oh my God! They have chemistry now! How? How did the one extra character make the most boring crew ever so much fun? I want to actually listen to their dialogue now. And even though I assumed the crew of the Mantis was a safe, corporate decision for 20+ hours, I now feel like I’m playing the main writer’s head canon crew that they’ve been nursing since Revenge of the Sith. And I actually want a sequel for this game I never thought I’d like (which, btw, if you haven’t played Fallen Order and you’re looking for a decent Souls-like, it’s way better than it has any right to be [just put it on max difficulty and prepare to die]).
But, look, whatever. I’m sure I’ll turn on that game in a little bit and Merrin will immediately peace out or Cal will die, but the lesson I took from that experience (aside from never ever bury one of your crew members at the end of your story–why would you ever do that???) is this: there is a very fine line between an incredibly boring crew and a super fantastic one. You can be off by just one character.
There is no formula here–at least not one that I’m aware of. You can play fast and loose with your character’s Specializations and Functions, and you should to make sure they, as a whole, are unique.
But, the worst thing you can do with your crew is make them boring. And you make them boring by making their interactions uninteresting.
As always, I have to add the extra disclaimer that I am just a man, not a professional. I don’t know the ins and outs of making a compelling team of characters.
But hey, it can’t hurt to talk about it.
Apologies for getting this one out late, but I was working through my observations as I wrote them here.
If you enjoyed, you can always feel free to drop me a like or follow.
But either way, it’s 4AM and I need to go pass out.
Take care, and, always be secure in the fact that if you’ve already eaten one cookie, a second cookie will not kill you. Goodnight!
3 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About – The Anatomy of a Good Crew”
Specialisation is a pretty cool thing to see in squad stories. Like even in GoT, I enjoyed how the fighting was left to some people, and the plotting to others, and those sub-specialities divided even further among the cast. Great post. Thanks for this, Louis!
No problem, and thank you for the comment!
Yeah, I also love that Specializations can be whatever you want. They are totally malleable to fit worldbuilding. So, with Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson has a crew with Specializations based on Fantasy superpowers. In Firefly, the Specializations are tuned to match the “Old West” vibe with a “doc” and a “holy man.”