Group Dynamics in Fiction

Writing Advice

In an era of self-isolation and social distancing, I want to talk about some of my favorite teams in fiction. One of the fastest ways to get me personally hooked is by setting up a group of characters that I love to see interacting. 

As with all elements of fiction, a number of tropes and trends have arisen over the years around the ‘dream team.’ Overly Sarcastic Productions (OSP) on Youtube has a fantastic video on the semantics of this trope, and I highly recommend checking them out after this! I’m going to hit on the basics of their video to help frame today’s blog.

Let’s start with something obvious: the best teams work best when each member contributes something. OSP really successfully discusses the most common members of the five-man-band: the Leader, the Lancer (right-hand man), the Heart, the Big Guy, and the Smart Guy. These five archetypes cover basically anything you could need for a five-man team, but using these cut-and-dry outlines can make a character feel flat and one-dimensional. Oftentimes, the most successful way to combat this is by combining archetypes.

Let’s start out with the simplest example.

Harry + Hermione + Ron (Harry Potter)

How could I talk about team dynamics without discussing this generation’s golden trio? Harry and the gang fall into a looser five-man-band, occasionally picking up Neville or Luna as the Heart or Ginny as the Big Guy. But on their own, they’ve got a pretty obvious Leader-Lancer-Smart Guy composition. On the surface, at least. This dynamic is interesting specifically in the way it splits up the roles of Lancer and Smart Guy. Ron is the quintessential Lancer — the first best friend, the side-kick, the one who’s always there. But the entire Weasley family is a wealth of knowledge. When it comes to the wizarding world, Hermione is nearly as lost as Harry is, as both grew up in muggle homes. Without Ron, there would be no nights at the Burrow to see how a magical family lives. There would be no explanation of unusual items and customs. Ron’s experience makes him more of the street-smarts guy, but that role is a pillar of many stories. 

As for Hermione, yes, she is bookish, and she in every way fills the stereotypical ‘smart guy’ role. But! She is also a wonderful foil to Harry. She is committed to overachieving in classes while Harry exists in a more passive world of natural talent and chosen-one-ness. And despite that, she stays with Harry through everything. She is unyielding. She helps him and Ron with homework because she can’t stand to see them fail. She isn’t mad when Harry is entered into the TriWizard Tournament because she cares so much more about Harry’s safety. She stays with him every second while looking for Horcruxes. She doesn’t even leave when he’s cheating to beat her in Potions. 

Because of the complexity of his friends, I wouldn’t say that Harry has a very complex archetype. He leads because it’s his story. And that works! I have so much love for these characters, especially the way they are written in the book. They exist on an even playing field. The story works because they exist together, creating a unique unit that feels unstoppable. 

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Captain America + Ironman + Thor (Marvel Cinematic Universe)

Next, let’s talk about everyone’s favorite superheroes — well, they’re mine at least. However, many of you astute readers are questioning me. “Don’t you know there are more Avengers than that?” To which I say, yes of course. But these are the ones that matter. Even considering Black Widow, Hulk, and Hawkeye, the three listed above are the characters I care about the most. They also happen to be the most interesting characters to examine.  

Lined up against our five-man-band archetypes, there are some pretty quick parallels: Tony Stark is very obviously the ‘Smart Guy,’ Thor is obviously the ‘Big Guy,’ and Steve Rogers is obviously the ‘Heart.’ Very simple, clear alignments. It becomes a little muddier when you look at the other two “roles” of Lancer and Leader. 

Before we get there, let’s talk about the Leader v Lancer relationship. At its most basic level, Lancers are the right-hand man; they’re the second in command; they’re often the closest to the Leader. The Lancer often provides in-group opposition to the Leader. In good writing, the Lancer is a foil to the Leader, accentuating that characterization. So what does that do for our Avengers example?

Well, all three have very distinct moments of leadership. I believe — even aside from their solo-films — all take charge as the commanding force of large battles. 

Cap leads in the Battle of New York, leaving Thor to zap things and Tony to decide on his own what should be done. In this situation, Tony is the Lancer to Cap’s Leader. It highlights that Cap is a team player with the charisma to shine, while Tony is more of a quick-thinking, individualistic rogue.

In the Battle of Sokovia, Tony takes the lead, taking responsibility as the creator of their current issue, Ultron, with Thor playing Lancer, mostly by extension through the life-lightning he used on Vision. Cap is just there to punch things and save people this time around.

In the Battle of Wakanda, Thor is the turning-point in the fight. While Cap did what he could, leading the charge and calling the shots, he was the Lancer here, dependent on the God of Thunder to join in and decmate the army more efficiently. When the time came, Cap put up a great fight against Thanos, but it was Thor that was there to deliver the final blow, making him more of the Leader. All this time, Tony is in space, incapable of filling any real role.

While there’s nothing special about saying “Tony is smart, Thor has powers, and Cap is a sweet, lovable softy,” there is something special about the way their leadership dynamic ebbs and flows. 

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Quasimodo + Esmeralda + Febas (Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame)

This is one you might not have expected to see on this list, but I really really really wanted to talk about the success of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Unlike the two examples above, there really aren’t many characters to add to make this a full five-ish man band. Other main characters include the scary bad guy, those comic relief rocks, and that one gypsy-narrator who can’t decide whether or not to be omniscient. 

That means this group works exclusively by itself. For this one I want to abandon the roles of Leader and Lancer because I don’t think they really apply to what has been done here. I want to talk about the other three roles and how every character fills every one. 

Let’s start with our main guy, mister Quasimodo. This guy is incredible. And the first thing you’re likely going to notice is his heart. His introduction scene shows him encouraging a baby bird to fly. You see a gentleness that warms your soul right before you’re reminded of the manipulative asshole who raised him to be timid and fearful and ashamed to exist. Yet Quasi loves him until the end. After recognizing years of abuse, neglect, lies, neglect, manipulation, murder — shit, nearly stabbing the woman he was falling for — Quasi still tries to save this monster from falling off the cathedral into the depths of lava-hell. And that’s not even touching the love he has for his friends.

… Yet… there was that one time he held Febas in full armor with a single hand. And that time he effortlessly moved the stone seal from over the Court of Miracles. And that time he literally broke down stone columns of an architectural masterpiece. You can’t deny he’s incredibly strong! … Yet… he is also smart! He devised an escape plan for Esmerelda, and he figured out how to read the map to find her.

Of course, if we’re going to talk brains, let’s talk about Febas. While he fits the typical ‘big guy’ persona — strong soldier who breaks into a burning building, who chokes out a guard, who catches our very heavy protagonist from falling to his death — I think he’s much more than that. Aside from a startling wit, he is always quick to pick up on things. He is the only character to recognize Esmerelda in disguise. He helps her escape Frollo by thinking quickly and saying she had claimed sanctuary. His immediate instinct when trying to decipher gypsy code is to literally translate the Latin or Greek or Aramaic. 

Our sweet captain also has an immense heart. He is generous with money; he risks his life to save those unrightfully oppressed; he falls in love with someone of much lower social status. 

Which leaves us with Esmerelda. She is loving. Her song God Bless the Outcast is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I know of. She defends Quasi when she doesn’t even know him, simply because of the love she feels for the oppressed. She uses that love to give others confidence, reading Quasi’s palm to tell him he isn’t a monster. That scene leads to the fact that she’s brilliant — both observant and quick. She keeps up with Febas’s banter — in fact, she’s never without a come-back. 

But I think most notable is her strength. Everything Esmerelda does, she does with her full strength. On the physical side, the dancing she does is not light work. Neither is the insane escape sequence she pulls off shortly after. She then goes hand-to-hand with an experienced soldier. And then there’s the scene where she dives into a river, strips Febas’s armor off, swims him to the surface, and gets them both to the bank. Are you kidding me? But it’s more than that. She prays with all her might; she loves with all her might; she leads with all her might; she defends with all her might. It’s a big presence that leaves an impact.

All this leads back to the group and it’s dynamic. All things considered, I would say Febas is most like the “Smart Guy,” Esmarelda is most like the “Big Guy,” and Quasimodo is most like the “Heart.” The Hunchback of Notre Dame is incredible because it gave us three characters with incredibly powerful (and incredibly similar) skill sets without any one of them stealing the show. Not only did they accomplish that. They did it while flipping stereotypes on their heads. Strong soldiers are supposed to be dumb. Dancers are just ladies with no agency. Big, bulky guys should just tag along to lift things. These characters have one of the most beautifully complex team dynamics I’ve ever seen. If you haven’t seen this movie in a while, I highly recommend you watch it, if for nothing else than a phenomenal display of great writing. 

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I think next week, I’ll release a second part, talking about some of the teams I didn’t get to. These will be teams that I want to go more in depth with, comparing and contrasting in-universe examples. Specifically teams from Star Wars, Star Trek, and Avatar the Last Airbender. 

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Stay Safe,

Rena Grace

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