Teams play a big role in a lot of stories, but I don’t often see much time devoted to talking about how to create good team dynamics. Writing teams into a story isn’t as easy as it sounds. The more characters involved the more work has to go into making each member feel relevant. Now the types of teams you find yourself writing might differ from one story, medium, or genre to another, but the process by which you make your audience care about them as characters should stay the same. To illustrate some of these points I’m going to mention teams from various movies and tv shows. I’ll just post a mild spoiler warning even though I’m going to be using some really well-known examples.
Set a Manageable Number of Members
First things first, keep your group a manageable size. Even if they’re just side characters, the more characters you create, the more work you need to do to make each one distinct. While it might be easy for you to keep all of The Thirteen from The Hobbit straight, for me it’s much easier to remember the nine members of the Fellowship (who are eventually whittled into smaller groups I might add).
In Trial by Song, there are seven Sorley brothers. Mostly this was because there’s folklore associated with seventh sons being destined for greatness, and they correlate with the seven dwarves portion of Eira’s story. In A Court of Mist and Fury, there are five members of Rhysand’s inner circle when Feyre meets them.
Consider What They Bring to the Table
When deciding how many you need, consider what skills the situation requires. Planning a heist? Fighting an evil warlord, or completing a school project, ask yourself how many people does it really take to screw in a lightbulb. You’ll find yourself—and your readers—bored with characters who spend all their time standing around not doing anything (unless that’s the point of their character). But the more vital each person’s contribution becomes, the more invested your reader is in keeping all of those pieces together for a successful outcome.
Look no further than the recent surge of superhero team-up movies for examples. Each member is usually given one defining skill set that sets them apart from the others. Even if Aquaman and Wonder Woman are both super strong warriors, he can control water and communicate with fish and she has her bullet-deflecting bracelets and Lasso of Truth.
Create Interesting Personalities
Once you’ve decided how many characters are in your group, you’ll need to establish unique personalities for each member. Obviously creating unique individuals is key, but think about how they’ll fit together. The more distinct they are from each other, the easier it gets. A good trick is to create opposites within your group like Ironman and Captain America. They have similar personality types with opposing ideologies. If you have one person who needs peace and quiet to concentrate, then pair them with someone who listens to music so loud everyone else can hear it even when they have their headphones on. The more fine-tuned the differences are, the more ways you can have them getting under each other’s skin.
If each one has a role, let that help guide what kind of person they might be. I let the dynamics of the older, middle, and youngest brothers inform how the Sorley brothers behaved. Also, each one has a magical talent, and how they perceive or use that power helped shape them too.
For a more literary example, let’s look at The Fellowship of the Ring. The hobbits are much more optimistic than the dwarf, elf, humans, or wizard, but even among them Frodo and Sam display more self discipline and maturity since they’re the ones who wind up taking care of the One Ring.
Decide Whether They Are Allies or Adversaries?
This leads right into interpersonal relationships. Stories are all about dramatic tension, and watching people interact with each other is a prime source of it. A germaphobe will not take it well if his or her partner absentmindedly bites their nails and spits them out when they’re bored. The more these individual’s quirks affect the way each person handles the overall mission will provide great characterization and reasons for readers to sympathize with your characters. Even having someone who straddles the middle with partners who occupy either end will give plenty of opportunities to see these characters bicker and figure out how to work together. The main trio from Harry Potter is a great example of this.
Another thing to consider is whether there’s a power struggle between members. The longer their shared history, the more likely they’ve had big disagreements with one another. Is there a class difference or prejudice at work? Are they setting aside differences for a temporary truce? Exes working together, an unrequited crush, or even rejected admirer can add an interesting dynamic.
Let’s look at the Pevensies from The Chronicles of Narnia. Lucy’s history of truthfulness is set against Edmund’s habit for causing trouble. The sibling arguments and finger-pointing prompt Edmund to side with the White Witch, but their family bonds mean they never stop trying to forgive and protect each other.
Consider Your Team’s Diversity
And finally, consider how diverse your cast is. While it’s not necessary to tick off every single box in terms of representation for every story, it’s worth considering which boxes might add richness to the story you’re telling. Looking at the Fellowship from The Lord of the Rings again. There are five races represented, and each of those groups has a different relationship with each other. The dwarves and elves have a rivalry, the human is the leader, the wizard offers sage advice, and for the most part the hobbits are regarded as the innocent ones in need of protection. Diversity can mean many things depending on the world of your story. Species, gender, race, abilities, nationalities, sexual orientation…
Now It’s Your Turn
I hope you find these tips helpful as you create groups and teams for your various projects. Have any points that I’ve left out? Let me know in the comments.