Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How to Make the Ensemble Work: Lessons from LOST

I’m a big fan of LOST. In fact to this day, I still mourn the loss of it. I know a lot of fans were disappointed with the finale, but for me it worked. The story delivered the promises that it made to me. A lot of viewers got caught up into the mystery of the island, but to me, the story was always about the castaways. Characters who were metaphorically lost and could only find themselves after they became literally lost.

Recently I found the entire series of LOST on Netflix, and I started watching the first season. I’m as drawn in as I was the first time. LOST wasn’t perfect, but it did do a lot of things right, and I know I’ll have more to say about it especially the ending, but that will be another post. Right now I want to talk about how LOST made an ensemble cast work.

The Awesomeness of a good ensemble

In stories with a true ensemble, there really isn’t one protagonist but a group of main characters, and these stories tend to focus on the relationships between the main characters. In LOST, it is clear that Jack is the main protagonist but just barely. For the most part, there was a core group of characters that the series focused on.

But even if a story has one clear protagonist, developing other main characters and creating a core group can really make a story special. Part of the magic of Harry Potter was the engaging large cast of interesting and well-developed secondary and side characters. I really don’t think the Harry Potter books would not have done as well without Hermoine, Ron, Dumbledore, Snape, etc.

I’ve read a lot of high fantasy novel with a core group of characters on some sort of quest. Even though there usually is one main protagonist, the dynamics of the group is very important. In fact, the stories that stayed with me the most were the ones which made me connect to almost every character in the party like Lord of the Rings, The Belgariad, and Harry Potter. Putting together an engaging ensemble of characters can really make your story shine.

How to make an ensemble work

The series LOST gives us lots of valuable insights in how to make an ensemble cast work.

1. Work the characters into the ensemble slowly. Nothing is worse for a reader than to be thrown into a large group of characters with no real focus. The reader quickly gets lost and loses interest.

LOST started with Jack. He was the first character on screen, and he anchored the audience through the first episode. All of the other characters were there in the chaos, but Jack was the focus, and he slowly introduced us to the other characters as he met them. The other characters take turns being the focus of later episodes, and really it takes almost the entire first season for all the main characters to be fully introduced.

Character introductions are important. Don’t rush into establishing all the players. Introduce a few characters at a time, and let the others be a mystery as the plot unfolds. Wait for the right time to make them the focus and reveal their backstory.

2. Every character needs an interesting backstory. LOST spends a lot of time on backstories for the main characters, and it is done really well. It accentuates who they are and who they become.

There is Jack with a complicated relationship with his dad, and even in his backstory, he is trying to save everyone. Then there is Sawyer who while trying to find the man who was indirectly responsible for the death of his parents actually becomes the man he’s been hunting and hating all those years. Hurley uses the numbers he hears a man repeating in a mental institution in the lottery and wins the multimillion dollar jackpot, only to be plagued with bad luck thereafter. All the main characters of LOST have rich, detailed, often heartbreaking backstories that are just as rich and fascinating as what is happening on the island.

Honestly, most stories should not go into this much detail about backstory. LOST was telling two stories in most of the episodes, the backstory of a character and that character’s present experience on the island. The backstory paralleled what was happening on the island, which was really quite brilliant. This fit the story that the writers of LOST were trying to tell, but it doesn’t work for all stories.

Still backstory is important. In fact, I feel that it is essential for good characterization. So making interesting, detailed backstories for all the characters in the ensemble will make them feel like real characters whether or not that backstory is revealed. Everyone in the group should have their own motive for going on the adventure or being a part of the group outside of the main character. This will make all the characters in the ensemble come to life.

3. The characters interact with each other in big and small ways. In watching the first season of LOST again since it first aired, I was surprised by how many times the characters interacted with each other in small ways that weren't big plot turns.

I remembered the big things like Locke befriending Walt, Charlie and Claire's romance, and Jack and Sayid torturing Sawyer, but I didn’t remember all the small interactions like Hurley trying to fish with Jin, Sawyer giving Charlie Claire’s diary, or Jack pushing Boone aside to resuscitate Rose. These were all small moments, but they gave the impression that these characters were interacting with each other even when they were off screen. It made it feel as if these people were really living together which sets up the strong relationships that developed later.

A lot of times in my reading of high fantasy adventure stories, we see the protagonist getting to know all of other characters in the group, but what is sometimes missing is that interaction between the other characters without the protagonist involved. I know this is hard to do especially when the protagonist is the main focus, but if you can subtly work in moments showing glimpses of how the supporting characters interact with each other to give the impression that there is more going on beween them than what is on screen or on the page. This will give the ensemble realistic group dynamics that make them feel like a real people instead of a bunch of characters following the protagonist around to service a plot.

4. Conflict, conflict, conflict. LOST is chock-full of conflict. First of all, they are stuck on deserted island that is pretty creepy with whispers and an unseen monster that tears people apart. If that isn’t enough, they are not the only people on the island, and the others are rather hostile.

But that isn’t all the conflict. Every character has internal conflict, Jack’s insecurities on being a leader, Sayid’s guilt, Sawyer’s inability to connect with others, Charlie’s lack of self-confidence, and Michael’s struggle to be a good father. Then there are also conflicts between the characters. Jin suspects Michael is interested in his wife. Boone doesn’t want Sayid to “date” his sister. Michael thinks Locke is undermining his authority with his son. And Sawyer clashes with pretty much everyone.

If you throw a bunch of people together in any setting, there will be conflicts between them. A group that always gets along is not only uninteresting but unrealistic. The characters need to have conflicts with each other in order to feel like real people.

The thing about conflict is that it can push people apart and draw them together. It can strengthen or challenge relationships, and I feel that in real life, you can’t have a meaningful relationship without some sort of conflict.

The moments I really liked in LOST were the moments that they all came together. Whenever there was a bigger threat, they put their differences aside and banded together like when Jack, Sayid, Locke, Sawyer, and Kate went after Ethan who was threatening to kill them one by one. Those were the moments when you could see relationships forming, when they learned to trust and depend on each other. You need moments like that to make an ensemble work.

Some parting thoughts

LOST had a pretty big ensemble cast. That works well for a TV series that has a lot of time to develop characters and plot lines. But in writing novels, small groups work better. You should have the smallest group possible to tell the story. That gives more space to really develop those character and relationships to make the ensemble really memorable.

So I want to know what you think. What are some of your most favorite ensembles in books, TV, or movies, and why do you think they worked?



  1. So far in my life, I have only watched about 10 minutes of Lost total, and it was so spooky I had to shelf it. Perhaps I should give it another try.

    I love these ideas, especially having all your characters interact with each other on and off the page. That's so important, and so easy to forget to do!

    1. There are parts of Lost that are a little creepy, but for the most part it is a drama. It is very character focused which is why I loved it.

      The characters interacting on and off the page is similar to your awesome advice on Romantic subplots. I think it is important in relationship building between characters in general.

  2. I love Lost and agree with everything you said. I always thought Lost was about life and death on this earth. We don't have all the answers and don't really know why we are here. Does it have meaning or not? We never really know and either do these charactors. I love the charactors struggle with the best and worsth part of themselves rather in their desire to fix everything and can't or a drug addiction. I always wanted whoever the show focused on that week to go with their best self, and realistically that didn't always happen. Great post...

    1. I agree completely. This is one of the reasons that the finale worked for me. I thought it was better for Jack to be acting on faith especially since so much of the show was about having faith.

  3. Great post. You amaze me with your ability to dissect TV shows and movies.

    Lost was one of my favorite shows. It's funny as I get distance from the show, as time passes, the little details of what I loved start to blur. I don't remember all of the mythology of the show, but I do remember Charlie. I remember Kate, and Jack, and Faraday, and Desmond, and that handsome broken Sawyer, and the creepy Ben Linus.

    It just goes to show, that you can add all the smoke monsters, healing temples, scientific experiments that you want, but it's the characters that are important.

    Great post.

    1. My thoughts exactly. There was a lot of interesting things going on the island, but what really stayed with me were the characters.

  4. One of my favorite TV shows was Kidnapped with Timothy Hutton and Dana Delaney. Great cast, tension, risk, conflict, and the unknown backstory that started it all.

    1. I've never heard of Kidnapped, but I'm really intrigued. Off to google. :)

      Thanks for stopping by.

  5. I watched lost for a few seasons, but gave up after a while when it seemed they were just circling the pond. However, friends said it got a lot better. You've inspired me to check it out again.

    And your advice on ensembles is priceless. Excellent post!

    1. Did you give up on it in season 3? I actually didn't watch much of season 3 for the same reason, but I came back to it for season 4 and thought the rest of it was pretty awesome.


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