What a Bunch of Losers: How to Write a Motley Crew

It’s no secret that I have a favorite kind of cast, be it a book, a movie, or a television show. My favorite ensemble has always been the ‘Dirty Dozen’ idea of a motley crew, people who couldn’t be more different from one another but are thrown together anyway. This has always been my favorite, for many reasons (I’ll get to those in a minute) but sometimes, it just isn’t done well. (Granted, many things aren’t done well sometimes, but that’s no excuse.) I’ve read – and viewed – many stories where the mixture simply didn’t work – either the group was flat-out boring (Rogue One) or there was no real love anywhere and any bonding that happened was temporary and didn’t really mean anything (Suicide Squad).

Disclaimer: I enjoyed Suicide Squad way more than I expected, but not in a thrilling ‘I can’t wait to see it again’ kind of way.

Also disclaimer: I’m not here to hate on Rogue One. I did that already. HA.

My first-ever novel The Shadows Fall, featured a motley crew. Then I wrote Monster, which did not feature a motley crew, and then I wrote Paper Crowns, which featured a small one, and Dark is the Night, which featured a big one, and The Dying of the Light, which featured a REALLY big one  – to say nothing of all the NaNoWriMo/JuNoWriMo novels I’ve written in-between the other novels, which also feature – you guessed it – motley crews.

I’ve reached the point where pretty much every novel I write features the ‘motley crew’ cast, because hey – when you love a thing, you love a thing. It’s safe to say that, while I had no clue what I was doing when I started, I have a pretty good handle in the idea now. (I blame growing up on movies like Robin Hood, The Magnificent Seven, and The Great Escape.)

So what makes a great motley crew?

How do you juggle so many characters, juggle them well, and still keep the plot moving in the right direction? Here are a few things I’ve picked up along the way.

  • There needs to be a common main goal. This is the thing that everybody is working toward. In Prison Break, the main goal is escaping Fox River. In Legends of Tomorrow, the main goal is defeating Vandal Savage. In The Magnificent Seven, the main goal is saving a town. The main goal is the overarching thing that brings these unlikely characters together, and it has to be compelling for so many very different people to all want the same thing. They probably want it for different reasons, but they want it.
  • Speaking of different reasons, each character should have one. In Prison Break, Michael wants to break his brother out. Lincoln wants to escape because he isn’t guilty + has a son outside who happens to be in trouble. D.B. wants to see his daughter before she dies of cancer. Sucre wants to keep his girl from marrying his cousin. T-Bag has made too many enemies inside prison, and Abruzzi’s in for life. They have the overarching goal of ‘escape,’ but they’re all doing it for very different reasons.
  • Think of your group as a chemical experiment. Each character is a new chemical, which means each new character will completely change the composition of your experiment. It might just be awkward. giphyIt might turn it blue. It might EXPLODE. If you add a character into the group and the composition of your experiment doesn’t change, this character either needs an overhaul, or he needs to go. In a motley crew, there’s no room for a character that doesn’t rock the boat in some way. Which leads to my second point…
  • Friction. As I said a few posts ago, nobody wants to read a story in which everyone gets along beautifully. That’s boring. I personally find friction to be the second-most fun thing about writing motley crews. Friction comes from several different things – character A doesn’t get along with character B, character C has their own problems that endanger the other characters, character E is a wild card whom nobody trusts, etc. If there’s an opportunity for characters to butt heads, let them do it. It makes it all the more satisfying when they actually start to work together.
  • The gradual buildup. Character A starts to get along with Character B, Character B starts to get along with Character C, and so on. In Legends of Tomorrow, Sara and Snart have an easygoing relationship from the beginning, despite their differences. tumblr_o3iknnrl821qgapqso1_400It’s not in-your-face obvious, but they can be seen playing cards in the background, chatting, and just generally getting along nicely while everyone else is busy arguing. In many ways, it’s Snart and Sara who begin to bond the team together – mainly because they aren’t interested in everyone else’s baggage. You can begin to bond your motley crew together by bonding them one character at a time. Warning: Don’t kill all the friction. Friction is a continual thing between any two people, and it’s amplified when you have an entire group of people, no matter what they’re doing. Friction should never die. And finally…
  • They do their thing! Together! Nobody wants to see a motley crew pull off their first mission with perfect ease – where’s the tension in that? The excitement? The gang needs to learn to work together, and that’s a bumpy road. This is what makes the whole idea of the motley crew fulfilling and satisfying as a story, because the entire point of a motley crew is for them to eventually become a well-oiled machine. (For example, The Legends of Tomorrow are a motley crew, while the Flash features a ready-made team.) This is another reason why motley crews work especially well for prolonged stories – television shows or book series, because when you have this many people, you cheer when they finally work together, but just because they pull off one mission well doesn’t mean they can necessarily keep scoring all A’s. tumblr_lls0x1nw7n1qakh43o1_500In fact, their first successful mission might just be a hint at what they could do – maybe they can’t keep it up. Maybe it’s try, try again. Maybe passing one test with flying colors revealed even more issues they need to work out – the possibilities are fairly endless, as long as everyone keeps growing and changing for the sake of making a better story. Maybe, in pulling off the first successful mission, someone dies (PROTIP: do NOT kill off the character who provides the heart of the show. Don’t do it. I’m not bitter about Snart or anything, but if you do this I will hunt you down) and someone new needs to show up, which changes the dynamic yet again.

When it comes to prison escapees, avengers, legends, or magnificent sevens, the possibilities are endless. What’s YOUR favorite fictional motley crew?


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