For some strange and wondrous reason, the Nile Rodgers interview in Behind the Glass has proven to be an endless source of wisdom for me. At one point he talks about complementary dynamics in a song, and how analogies can be drawn between those things and, say, food: "I think of weight and substance, and I understand flavors and ingredients and textures and how to work with sweet and sour, hot and cold, funky and smooth."
Notions like this tend to wash around in my head and attach themselves to all kinds of things. The other day, they attached themselves to the idea of the cast of characters present in a story. The implications should be obvious: you don't want everyone in the story to be the same way, because a) you can't tell anyone apart and b) that's boring. But c), the differences need to be more than cosmetic. Not just in the sense of physical makeup or even personality, but outlook, attitude to life, methodology of living.
Same applies to, for instance, the roster in a role-playing game campaign. The characters people choose in such a campaign reflect at least as much the balance that needs to exist within the adventuring party as they do their own personal preferences. Someone has to be the tank, but if everyone is a tank, then no one is a healer, and you end up getting greased in your first showdown because the other party brought mages too.
All this is setup for the discussion of a bigger question that came to mind. Most of us have some sense, in our lives, of the spontaneously self-organizing groups of people that spring up around various things — a shared interest, a job, etc. Well-constructed stories involving a group of people tend to reflect at least some variety in those groups.
But how realistic is that? Do people really self-organize so elegantly into balanced groups, or is the "balance" we see in such things largely a matter of framing and perception? I think it's largely perceptual, but that's okay, because stories are not reality anyway — they start with reality, but then they distill it and interpret it, and sometimes they just make it up wholesale and expect us to connect everything back to the world we know.
To that end, if we're going to talk about balance in a group of characters, it makes sense to think about both how that balance is artificial, and how it is natural.
The first thing I think about with "balance" is that it's not an absolute. An adventuring party has one kind of balance; a software development team another; a newsroom team a third one. It's always about balance around a specific center, and that center is not going to translate to another group.
With a group of people in a story, there's two possible centers, two poles that can be established. The first is the center for that group as it would exist in real life -- the kind of self-organizing center we all experience when we're part of a group that has been formed to do something, or just to exist. That's the "natural" balance. The second center, though, is the center for the group as it exists for the terms of that story, the "artificial" balance.
If we tell a story about a newsroom, there's a good chance the fact that they're working on a revelation of seismic potential isn't itself the story. The movie Spotlight, which was excellent by the way, was like this. The news team in the story had as its nominal center the piece they were working on about the cover-ups of sexual abuse within the ranks of the Catholic Church. But the thematic center was different — how it touched each of their lives, as when one of the members of the team, who has young children, realizes (in one of the best moments in the film) that one of the priests in question lives right up the block from him.
What's critical about these two poles is not that they themselves have to be in total synchrony. What matters most is that you know how to do justice to each of them separately, in their proper place. Don't try to force the real-life center of the group to complement the thematic center of the group. Use the story as the medium through which the two complement each other.
Here's what I mean by this. The first pole, the real-life center, is what the group has ostensibly come together to do. How that plays out, and what it means, can become the second centers. This means sometimes it's best to start with the first pole as-is — just bring together a bunch of people on a common mission, look at them, see them behaving, see them dragging each other in different directions. Taste the sweet and sour, the hot and cold, just as it is. Then think about what that means thematically. Themes can come later. People come first.
For an example of the crews of characters I've created, check out my (new!) novel Welcome To The Fold, and showing your support for it by registering at Inkshares and adding the book to your "Follow" list! Failing that, you can always buy one of my existing books, available on Amazon Kindle and in dead-tree format.
Other Lives Of The Mind