How to Write a Screenplay with Assorted Characters

By Eric Owusu · March 12, 2015

Several of my favorite movies feature a big cast of colorful characters that come together to accomplish specific goals, get out of trouble, or help each other stay out of trouble. An ensemble movie is different from most lone protagonist-driven movies because it has a lot of main protagonists (some who are depicted as supporting characters though) that have roughly the same amount of screen time and importance in the screenplay.
Several ensemble movies are touted as blockbusters; events that can’t be missed. Ocean’s Eleven, The Avengers and the X-Men movies have all been crowd-pleasing seat fillers whose ensemble cast have satiated large audiences.
So now that you have no more reasons not to, here are a few things to keep in mind as you go about writing your own screenplay with an ensemble cast.
The first thing to keep in mind is to feature an event or shared goal that requires all of the featured characters. You’ll need a reason to bring your characters together – a big event or goal that they all have an investment in is a great way to unite them. In 2011’s hit movie Bridesmaids, Lillian gets married and asks her best friend Annie, her cousin Rita and her friends Helen, Becca and Megan to be her bridal party. In The Avengers, the uniting catalysts are Nick Fury, the Norse God Loki and Loki’s plan to destroy Earth. In Reservoir Dogs, it’s a jewelry store heist. In Ocean’s Eleven, it’s a casino heist. Construct a nucleus that brings and keeps your cast together that will carry them, and audiences, all the way through your memorable screenplay.
Make sure to establish the individuals in your ensemble early in the screenplay. The Avengers has the luxury of having their ensemble cast introduced to audiences through years of comic books and separate movies, before The Avengers was released. In Bridesmaids, our guide through the film is Annie, the Maid of Honor. We meet her engaged friend and source of her happiness, Lillian, after we meet Annie, followed by the rest of the bridesmaids when Annie meets them at Lillian’s engagement party. We are not only introduced to the rest of the ensemble cast by name and title in relation to Lillian, but also by personality type. It is important to define your characters when you introduce them with the things they say, the ways in which they say them, the things they do and how they interact with the rest of the ensemble. It is very much a reflection process between the characters.
A good question to keep in mind and answer as you develop your ensemble screenplay, after you establish your characters and why they’re together, is “why are they still together?” Bridesmaids sees several conflicts rise during the course of its plot. Annie’s restaurant suggestion gives everyone in the bridal party food poisoning except Helen. Annie’s in-flight antics gets their plane grounded and cancels their trip to Las Vegas, which leads Lillian to replace Annie with Helen as the wedding and shower planner. Despite all these obstacles, Annie remains a part of the ensemble. Per usual, give your characters roadblocks as they pursue their goals.
All Annie wants is to have Lillian to herself. No husband. No Helen. Just the two of them, like it was before the engagement. But the engagement is the event that leads to the purpose of Bridesmaids: a wedding. Annie overcomes her obstacles in time to be a part of the wedding. Show the audience how your ensemble cast gets past hindrances in route to their goals. How do they take failure? Do they get back on the horse? If so, how? Give your characters reasons to give up and have them choose to continue forward. Annie secludes herself and is encouraged to patch things up with the rest of the ensemble by one of her fellow bridesmaids. Annie chooses to be there for Lillian. In the end, the whole ensemble cast makes it to the wedding and couldn’t be a happier bunch.
When penning your ensemble cast screenplay, toy around with the format. It can be linear like Bridesmaids is, or it can jump around in time like Reservoir Dogs. However you decide to present it, have fun concocting your characters, their circumstances and their reactions to them. Give each protagonist some of the spotlight, similar to how you’d give a main protagonist a lot of the spotlight. Remember, in terms of interesting stories, characters’ desires and fun character types in your screenplay: The more, the merrier.
Clip Credit: Marvel