Cast Tropes

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January 8, 2013 by jcfarnham

I’ve been thinking recently about cast tropes; those ideas which assume that ‘fundamentally, all ensemble casts of characters can fall within a number of set roles.’

The chief amongst these is the Five Man Band as defined by

“The Five-Man Band is a group of characters whose members fall into archetypes which all complement one another. They are a very specific team with skills that contribute to the group in a unique way. The group traditionally includes:

  • The Leader(lead singer) The leader of the group. Can be a mastermind, charismatic, levelheaded, headstrong, or some combination of the four. Often also The Hero.
  • The Lancer(lead guitar) The second-in-command, usually a contrast to The Leader. If the Leader is clean-cut and/or uptight, the Lancer is a grizzled Anti-Hero or Deadpan Snarker; if the Leader is driven and somewhat amoral, the Lancer is more relaxed and level-headed.
  • The Smart Guy(keyboardist) The physically weak, but intelligent or clever member. Often nerdy and awkward played for comic relief. Sometimes unconventionally young (early- to mid-teens). Sometimes a Trickster and a buddy of the Big Guy. May be the one with all the “street” connections.
  • The Big Guy(drummer) The strongman of the team. May be dumb. Or mute.
  • The Chick(vocal effects, tambourine) A peacekeeping role to balance out the other members’ aggression, bringing them to a nice or at least manageable medium. The Chick is often considered the heart of the group. This role is played by a woman or girl. Someone female. Otherwise, it is not a Five-Man Band.”

LB Gale identifies that the problem with the trope as is on the TvTropes website, is that more often than not the perfect example of the five man band isn’t always perfect. In Star Wars there are two smart guys. In the Avengers, Black Widow doesn’t have a lot in common with The Chick as written and any number of the characters presented could fall into the Smart Guy archetype.

The final line of the tv tropes entry is to me idea suicide. “Otherwise it is not a Five-man Band”. So, what happens when the best known Five-man Bands aren’t really Five-man Bands? What are they instead? Tv Trope being the monster that it is probably has an answer for that, but here’s my take on the matter:

We must first consider what a trope is and what’s it’s meant for. It’s primarily an archetype; something observed so many times in fiction that it deserves a name. Archetypes are not supposed to be taken literally. To me they are little more than an important analytical tool.

So, if an idea has gained the traction to be considered a trope it must be fairly “tried and test”, yes? We writers could do much worse than take on board the archetypes that have served so many successful franchises and works of fiction so well in the past.

My take is that a good team often boils down to the Five-Man Band structure–or something distinct but similar–so by necessity it can cover all it’s bases. That doesn’t mean the Chick has to be female though does it? HE could also double up as a smart guy. So what if Tv Tropes wouldn’t consider it a true example? The true heart of the trope is that a successful team usually covers the majority of these roles.

I would never suggest shoving all your fiction into these boxes, and wouldn’t want to do it myself, but these kind of Cast Tropes do present a fantastic exercise in analysis don’t you think? I don’t believe it’s necessary for the members of your Five-Man Band to exist as an in-story team, but it could still work as such to drive the plot to completion. In the Faebound stories, I rarely have five characters acting at once toward the same goal, but I bet at the end of the day I could boil the plots down to, perhaps not the Five-man, but a similar cast trope never the less. (Another would be the Seven-man band of Seven Samurai fame.)

More often than not, if I employ them, I use them to plug holes in my plot, or to identify [when applied correctly] if I’m missing any golden opportunities of conflict. “Do I have a smart guy? Would the inclusion of a Big Guy then aid development or is it an unnecessary relationship? Does the cast need a ‘Chick’ or does the unstable nature lend itself to a more satisfying plot?” These are the kind of questions I use them to discover.

Never forget, these tropes exist in no small part due to their continual and successful use in Hollywood. That’s something you’d be a fool not to learn from I think.


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