Monday, June 9, 2014

Ensemble casts, stereotype flips, and more lessons from the silver screen

It was my birthday and I wanted to watch a "girl movie." Something that would involve no torture, no guns, and no moments where I had to plug my ears and sing to myself until the scary part passed. (Don't I sound fun to watch movies with?) I fired up Netflix hoping to be struck by something.

What To Expect When You're Expecting was the first chick movie I saw. It had actors and actresses I knew, and I thought I maybe sorta remembered chuckling at a preview, so that's what I picked.

All of what I've said so far could be summarized as this: I had low expectations going into the movie viewing experience. I was looking for simple, romantic, and a laugh or two. Nothing that involved too much thinking or that left my lying awake that night trying to figure out how the writers had pulled off certain elements.

I got most of what I wanted. I got simple, romantic, and a few laughs. But I still wound up laying awake in bed that night thinking about the movie. It was so much better than I thought it would be, and I wanted to know why. I finally decided on five things that made it not-your-run-of-the-mill chick flick.

The ensemble cast worked well.

If you're not familiar with the movie, here's the blurb from the studio:
Inspired by the perennial New York Times bestseller of the same name, WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU'RE EXPECTING is a hilarious and heartfelt big screen comedy about five couples whose intertwined lives are turned upside down by the challenges of impending parenthood. Over the moon about starting a family, TV fitness guru Jules and dance show star Evan find that their high-octane celebrity lives don't stand a chance against the surprise demands of pregnancy. Baby-crazy author and advocate Wendy gets a taste of her own militant mommy advice when pregnancy hormones ravage her body; while Wendy's husband, Gary, struggles not to be outdone by his competitive alpha-Dad, who's expecting twins with his much younger trophy wife, Skyler. Photographer Holly is prepared to travel the globe to adopt a child, but her husband Alex isn't so sure, and tries to quiet his panic by attending a "dudes" support group, where new fathers get to tell it like it really is. And rival food truck chefs Rosie and Marco's surprise hook-up results in an unexpected quandary: what to do when your first child comes before your first date? A kaleidoscopic comedy as universal as it is unpredictable, WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU'RE EXPECTING finds humor and uplift in all the unexpected trials and triumphs of welcoming a child into the world.
(Sidenote: This movie lives up to its PG-13 rating. You don't need to watch the movie to understand the points I make in this post, but if you're old enough to watch PG-13 movies, it's a good one to study the balance of the characters.)

You'll notice from the description that there's no main character. This is an ensemble cast, and it works very well. But why?

  • They were exploring a big topic. Expecting your first child is a big topic and you can explore it from lots of angles. Other stories by nature have a more narrow focus, A story about a boy who learns he's a wizard and goes away to wizarding school or a race car that gets lost in the boonies are not stories that are built with a need for an ensemble cast.
  • Each couple showed a different perspective. There are lots of different ways to find yourself expecting your first child. While two of the couples battled infertility, one found themselves surprisingly pregnant and another turned to adoption. Three of the couples are married, two are not. One of them has never even been on a date. Ensemble casts only work when the different threads show different perspectives. 
  • The story lines were independent but still wove together. The balance of this is very tricky. The writers used the topic of the story (expecting your first child) to be what united the stories rather than the characters relationships. Only two of the couples knew each other and for many of the others they only overlapped in the background of each other's shots. (By which I mean when Character A was buying food, he happened to be buying it from Character B, even though at that moment we were focused on Character A's story and not Character B's.) Several characters had a relationship to each other but we didn't realize it until the end. Even then, it was handled as a fun "Oh, look, they're cousins," kind of way and not a "Leading up to a big reveal."

Stereotypes were flipped

This is a movie that could have easily been filled with stereotypical characters. As soon as I think of couples who are expecting their first child, tons of stereotypes filled my head. The writers (and the actors as well) did a great job of making all these characters feel fresh and real, but I was particularly impressed with Skyler, the trophy wife character.

They cast Skyler as someone who looked like she could be even younger than her adult stepson. She's the walking Barbie doll you would expect, and if I were writing that character, my instinct would have been to make her snarky, air-headed, and flirtatious.

But the writers made a unique choice. In a scene where the father and adult son (who's part of one of the other couples) argue, the son leaves their baby shower. Instead of Barbie Doll Mom being flippant or shrugging it off (it's not her son, after all) they flipped her stereotype. Instead, they have her react the way you would expect a regular mom to. She lectures her husband about being too hard on "their son" and says he needs to go after him and make peace.

Apply it to your book: Have an evil stepmother character? A brooding bad boy? A perfect cheerleader type? A dumb jock? What twist could you give them? Even if you keep them as an evil stepmother (after all, a trophy wife is a common character in stories) what's something they could do to surprise the audience?

Character's expectations were trampled on.

My favorite character was Wendy who owns a baby store and has been obsessed with pregnancy and being a mom for years. Then her dreams come true and after all this time of trying for a baby, she is finally pregnant. The writers did an awesome job of setting up the character's expectations of what pregnancy and motherhood would look like.

Then they went about systematically destroying everything she imagined. She has a miserable pregnancy full of all the gross stuff that often gets glossed over in Hollywood, and as the movie goes on you feel so sorry for her. When her surprising moment of victory comes, it's extra satisfying because of what a great job the writers did showing us her expectations before Wendy went through all her trials.

Apply it to your own book: What does your character think will happen over the course of the story? Not only do they think it will happen, they feel it's practically a guarantee. And how could you slowly break them down until they release that dream and take hold of something new and better?

Characters on the same "team" were not always on the same page.

While some of the couples in What to Expect When You're Expecting were in sync with the journey of starting a family, not all of them were. Again, this was a situation where the writers did a great job with the balance. It would have felt like conflict overload if all five couples were at war with each other, but it also would have felt very unrealistic if all five couples were powering forward in unison.

Apply it to your own book: What teams have you created in your book? Are there best friends or people on a quest together? How have you handled the conflict between them? Is there an issue that divides them or draws them closer together?

"Why do you do that?"

Jules, who's played by Cameron Diaz, is a celebrity fitness instructor and super controlling. As her pregnancy progresses, her micro-managing tendencies only grow stronger. To the point where even those in the audience are leaning away from the screen thinking, "Yikes. You're out of control."

After a bad fight with her boyfriend where Jules deals a few low blows, he storms out. After he leaves, she's doing something in the bathroom, looks at herself in the mirror, and says, "Why do you do that, Jules?"

What a great way to win back the interest and sympathy of the audience. Haven't we all said something that we regretted? Or lashed out at someone we love? Or acted in a way that had us thinking precisely the same thought? Why do I do that? It made the audience ache for her.

Apply it to your own book: Is there a scene where you could deepen sympathy for your character by having them "call themselves out" on their own bad behavior?

Stories of all kinds, whether it's television, movies, books, or others, can help us grow as a writer if we're paying attention. What was the last story you experienced that influenced your writer's brain?


  1. This is a wonderful and thought provoking posts. I love to see when a book or movie flips a stereotype! I think it deepens the story so much! As for ensemble casts, I think they can be really interesting when well done, but I feel like we're so often told (as writers) that we can only have one or, at most, two main characters. If someone told me they had ten MC's, I know I would be more than a little skeptical as to the quality of their story.
    Great post, Stephanie!
    ~Sarah Faulkner


    1. I'm no expert on ensemble casts, but I think instead of saying you have five main characters, you would describe it as an ensemble cast. Ensemble stories have such a different feel to them.

  2. This was fantastic! First off--I loved that movie. I laughed, I cried{!}...definitely a favorite. The points you made about the ensemble cast and how the writers/director flipped everything upside down and backwards--but it worked--was great food for thought. :)

    1. I knew I liked you, Meghan :) And I totally cried! Multiple times!

  3. Happy birthday, and thanks for the great post! I really enjoyed the part about flipping stereotypes. It makes a character so much more interesting when that happens, and it makes me want to try that out with my next MC. :) The last story that really influenced me was Saving Thanehaven by Catherine Jinks. It's about a guy named Noble who is trying to save the princess when a boy named Rufus comes along and tells him he's a program in a computer and Noble can think for himself. At the end, Rufus totally defied my expectations of what was going to happen. The book had a bunch of interesting characters, and it really got me thinking about my own characters and how to improve them!

    1. I LOVE when I find books that do that. Thanks for sharing, Kayla!

  4. Great points, Mrs. Morrill! I especially loved your points about flipping stereotypes and winning back sympathy. Not all characters are instantly loveable, and it's good to know how to handle those who aren't.

    1. I'm looking forward to finding a place to use that technique. Hopefully I pull it off as well as they did!

  5. All of these are great points! My favorite thing to do is flip stereotypes. I love taking a character, thinking of every way you'd expect them to be, and then flipping all expectations on their heads. I don't always keep all the changes, but it's a fun exercise!

    Alexa Skrywer

  6. Great post! I've never seen the movie (though I might at some point because of this post :D ), but it sounds like they handled an ensemble cast very well. It's my theory that people in the movie/TV industry have an easier time with multiple viewpoints because they not only metaphorically but literally "shift the camera." Some of my favorite shows are ones with a nice big cast, all of them having screen time and character archs.

    I absolutely LOVE it when stereotypes are turned on their head. In Jessica Day Gorge's book Dragon Slippers, (spoilers ahead) the main character goes to work in a seamstress's shop, and you meet a varied cast there, including a quiet, subdued crippled girl and an outgoing and flashy flirt. At first your sympathies automatically go to the first one, but it turns out she is working for the villain, while the more flashy girl sticks by the main character and remains a spirited, tried and true friend throughout the series, thus taking care of the Prim and Quiet = Nice and Misunderstood, Flirty = Shallow and Bratty/ Never Trust A Popular Girl stereotype. I'm trying to do something similar in my novel, only slightly less drastic. My MC's best friend, the nice quite type, is actually a toxic friendship, because she apologizes and self-deprecates so much on purpose that she guilts my MC into doing what she wants. The head of the "popular" girls, on the other hand, shows my MC that she doesn't have to be ashamed of the best parts of her, and nearly always has her best interests at heart. (And somehow, as I always do, I have ended up bringing my book into this...)

  7. I have a character that is the son of a guy with a really bad reputation, but he is so different from his dad. He cares deeply about whether or not the person deserves it before he takes action.
    I have often gained a character when my imagination takes something that wasn't mentioned much in a book or movie and expands upon it.

  8. I love this post. x) It's given me a lot of good ideas, too, and I totally agree with the stereotype flipping. That's the best. Heh, although give me the guns and freaky movies any day...I tend to sneak out of the room when it's a chickflick. ;)

  9. Wow, I love your last point. (Why do you do that?) I'd love to incorporate that into my story somehow; a self-examination moment. Something like that could also show time passing; as in, character growth. Almost like Donald Maass's point in Writing the Breakout Novel about forgiveness being one of the best things you can put in a novel.

    Great post! Gave me some ideas. Thanks so much, Stephanie!

  10. I've gotten to try the 'assemble the cast' thing recently with a group of writer friends. I know you mentioned once about Fan Fiction helping you write, but we've tried something a little bit different: RPG (Role-Playing Game). Unlike the norm RPG where you have absolutely no idea where to go, whether players will drop out or join in, and usually half of them are terrible writers, we've specifically made it a goal to make the game feel like a book.

    We have four players and about nine to ten majorish characters. A few are together on things, and a few are against another. Some change. The boy and the girl who hated each other ended up liking each other. The little kid who was made fun of became tolerable. Two characters disagree. It's all very interesting (especially since we can't really control other players' characters), because they're all different, and they don't always agree.