Moving From the Spotlight to the Shadows and Back Again

Justice League Unlimited

I’ve mentioned a few times that I write ensemble cast stories for the most part.  Legends of Windemere is the easiest example since you can’t really say any of the champions are more important than the others.  This wasn’t any easy trick to pull off either.  Many people picked Luke Callindor or Nyx as the main heroes because they did take the spotlight more often, so I can’t say I was perfect here.  Yet, every hero had at least one book to shine in, which meant the others had to step back.  Moving from the spotlight to the shadows ran a few risks and challenges, but I think I did it as well as I could.  After all, you don’t see it very often in books.

This is where planning came in handy because that helped me position all of the characters for the story.  I chose the focal character for the main story with maybe one or two others to act as full supporting.  The others were there with moments to shine and things to do or had a side story.  For some clarity, here is a breakdown of Legends of Windemere: The Mercenary Prince:

  • Delvin Cunningham had the main story of traveling to the Yagervan Plains to find his tribe.  This took the lion’s share of the story and would eventually cross with the others for the conclusion.
  • The other champions were following Delvin until they ran into a problem that divided them even further.  This had a few scenes that were used to allow time to pass for Delvin.
  • Luke Callindor ended up on his own at one point.  This helped create a bridge for the two stories.
  • Another bridge was what was going on with Nyx.

Now, I use ‘shadows’ in the title, but the other characters aren’t really that far back.  You can see that they are still operating even though Delvin is the focus.  This way, nobody falls behind in terms of story and development.  They might not be leaping ahead like the main character, but they are growing enough to be ready for their next push.  One thing I learned here is that you can’t have an ensemble cast grow at identical rates.  Each path can overshadow the other or you can just get a mess of events with the characters growing for no real reason.  This is why I gave each character at least one book to get that major boost of development then gradual grow throughout the others.

You do run into a slight problem at times because some characters become more popular than others.  I had many requests for Fizzle stories with Nyx and Luke not being that far behind.  In contrast, people really didn’t seem that interested in Timoran Wrath or Dariana.  Yet, I couldn’t let them fall behind because that could harm the finale.  Having several champions weak and underdeveloped would be sloppy.  Besides, there was always a chance that their big events could bring more people to their fan base, which I’d like to think it did.  The point is that I couldn’t ignore anyone, so cycling them from front row to back row was the best option.  Reminded me of playing Final Fantasy games where you have to switch characters in and out to make sure nobody is under powered.  Made a mistake of not doing this in FF8 and got stuck with a team too weak to continue through the game.

While I don’t think I’ve tried it, you can also shift the characters over the course of a single story.  Maybe I did this by accident or the main/side story system I had covers this, but I’m too dense to realize it.  The trick here is to give each character ample time to develop without rushing either one.  If they go alongside each other then the switch can allow for a ‘time passing’ transition like I mentioned before.  It’s almost like a three ring circus where the spotlight moves to another act while the other gets ready for something else.  Don’t think I’m doing well on the analogies.  Anyway, you need to make sure you don’t spend too much time on one story.  If you do then the other one will atrophy and it will feel odd to go back there.  You can counter this by having it stop on a cliffhanger that ties into the main one, but that still runs the risk if you wait for too long.  Best to do a 1-1 or 2-1 or even 3-1 chapter/scene breakdown.  It really depends on the importance of each path.

So, I think I hit the subject correctly, but I’ll admit that I can’t be sure.  I thought it would be more complicated, but it really isn’t if you think about it.  Make sure characters get decent story time and moments to be the focal point.  The more often you shift them back and forth, the more the audience accepts that they are a group of protagonists instead of a solitary hero.  Once that’s established, you can be a little freer in your usage and not worry as much about finding perfect balance.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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11 Responses to Moving From the Spotlight to the Shadows and Back Again

  1. You do such a great job at ensemble and character development. Great tips, Charles.

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  2. Very good advice, I had never considered most of it, but now looking at some of my favorite stories with ensemble casts, I can see exactly what you’re talking about. I know I’ve read several books where the author hadn’t developed a character enough throughout the story.

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  3. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this post from Charles Yallowitz via his Legends of Windemere Blog with the topic: Moving From the Spotlight to the Shadows and Back Again

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  4. L. Marie says:

    Like everyone else has said, this is great advice. You are really good at ensemble casts and their arcs–another aspect of your world-building prowess. I’m glad you mentioned Justice League, because I definitely see the parallel. Some of the Justice Leaguers are more popular than others. But the writers still needed to keep the viewers up to date on them.

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  5. Justice League Unlimited was such a great series! I think they really thrived by bringing some of the lesser heroes from the back bench and focusing on them instead of the big names like Wonder Woman and Batman. Question, Huntress, Vigilante, Vixen, Star Girl, Booster Gold — all had their episodes to shine!

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