As a piggy-back to last week’s blog, let’s talk about more team dynamics. Just like in part one, I’m going to be using some basic tropes of the five-man-band to make these comparisons. As a refresher, the five-man-band is a tried-and-true method of team building that helps authors build a balanced team. The basic players are as follows: To start, you have the Leader, who does exactly what you’d expect — lead. Next up is the Lancer. This character is the right-hand-man of the group; they tend to be the closest to the protagonist, and often poses the most internal conflict of everyone — though that’s not necessary. There are a lot of flavors to Lancers: the best friend, the almost-as-good rival, the cranky loner, the literary foil (we’ll talk more about that in a bit.) Next, you have the Heart, the emotional center of the group; the big guy, the group’s muscle; and the smart guy, the group’s brain. As we talked about last week, the most interesting team members often have complex and unique relationships within themselves as well as with each other. Though, as you’ll see today, there are examples of simple teams done really well.
Before we jump in, let’s talk a little about the Literary Foils. Typically referring for single characters, a literary foil is something that uses opposite characteristics to highlight features of your protagonist. Selfless Leader? Greedy Lancer? That’s a foil. The differences highlight important traits. I’m going to be using this literary device on a group scale to talk about how some of our favorite teams stack up to their in-universe counterparts.
Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, Zuko VS Azula, Zuko, Mai, Tai Li
Let’s start with one of the hottest topics in the world right now: Avatar. Among so much more, Avatar the Last Airbender has an amazing team dynamic, but it also has an incredible foil team.
this is your spoiler warning. I will be giving specific examples that will spoil character arcs.
Starting out with our favorite pacifist monk; Aang is in a subcategory of leader, being a “chosen one” of sorts. While he is kind and loving, the role of the Heart would probably go to Katara. She fulfills the Heart role in a very motherly way. Her brother Sokka — the self-proclaimed “idea guy” — plays the role of the Smart guy, with Toph as the Big Guy in a small package.
In comparison, the ladies of the Fire Nation work in a much different way. Azula, in all her terror, is a powerhouse in this trope. She takes up three of the five roles as the Leader, Big Guy, and Smart Guy. She always has a plan, and it is at least three steps ahead of anyone else. And in terms of pure power, skill, and talent, the princess is on a completely different plane. This sets up a super interesting dynamic for the rest of the group. While Tai Li is a very traditional Heart — soft and kind and vulnerable — I would argue that Mai Is as well. Mai is in a constant state of emotional shut-down, though she is far from un-feeling. I would call her an anti-Heart or a hidden-Heart. The way the writers chose to use Mai and Tai Li as foils to each other furthered Azula’s separation from them.
Notice how, holistically, Team Avatar’s spread is infinitely more balanced than Azula’s. We see that once the Hearts of her group leave, you see the princess incapable of making coherent plans or applying her strength effectively. While Team Avatar does struggle when Sokka is high on cactus juice or before they have the brute strength and power of will Toph brings, they don’t crumble under their own weight the same way Azula does.
Now, you may have noticed I saved our favorite cranky, honor-obsessed enigma for last. I thought it would make the most sense as we get to see him as part of both groups and by himself. Zuko is a great example of the almost-as-good rival on both teams, and this works to his benefit as a stand-alone character. Since he was little, you see his technical skills paling in comparison to his sisters; “she was born lucky, he was lucky to be born.” Once he joins team Azula as teenagers, he takes up the implied role of Lancer. Being the only other bender puts him in direct comparison with his sister in the way the other girls aren’t; this comparison reinforces that he is still only second best. As a further foil to his sister, he portrays another level of what it means to be a Heart. He is the midpoint between Mai and Tai Li, internalizing all of his negative feelings like Mai but is much more open to expressing them like Tai Li.
Any time he is by himself, Zuko demonstrates all three characteristics of the group (Leader and Lancer are a bit redundant in solo situations) as seen in the episode “Zuko Alone.” He is smart enough to stay alive, stay under the radar, and keep out of trouble for the most part. He kind and loving in the way he takes care of the Earth Village family. And he is strong and capable when he defends them from the power-hungry soldiers. It’s common for the “loner” variant of the Lancer to have a well rounded skillset but not good enough to remain a solo act for too long.
Once aligned with Team Avatar, you see him in the full role of a Lancer. He equalizes the team, adding the last bit of balance they were missing. Literally, he is the last element needed, giving him an element of the Big Guy. His knowledge of the Fire Lord and Fire Nation gives him an element of the Smart Guy. And his willingness to help each member of the Team accomplish some goal — some even finding closure on their character arcs. He also fills in the important role of in-team tension. While it’s great for teams to get along, things won’t be great always. Sometimes you have to allow your arch-nemesis onto your team to teach you firebending. Zuko was brought on after months of opposing Team Avatar, and each had an additional, personal reason to mistrust him. But this mistrust lead to the vital episodes that Zuko spent helping each team member with a personal task.
You can see how, while Team Avatar has very simple, straightforward alignments, they are foiled by their most intense, highly-complex rivals. Zuko’s inclusion in both groups highlights just how different the dynamics work.
Kirk + Spock + Bones VS Future Generations
Live Long and Prosper, my dudes. Through sixty years and almost ten series, Star Trek is a great example of how diverse these five-man-bands can really be.
The original show gave us one of the earliest dream-teams on television. While you could argue to fit additional members in the additional slots, no one beyond our original three (Kirk, Spock, & Bones) really have much impact on the team’s makeup. It might be slightly different in the new movie adaptation, but I’m sure the premise is similar. Captain Kirk is, by rank the leader. In great 60’s fashion, he is the most charming, the most charismatic, the best at whatever the episode needs. Like Our Harry Potter example last week, he is a relatively simple character, leaving the nuance to his closest friends. Spock, his Lancer, fills in both the roles of Smart Guy (the logical mind of the expedition, as well as the most familiar species with space travel) and the Strong Guy (again, because his species is innately stronger than the human race.) Bones, as a doctor who works under a moral code, is the Heart; his medical knowledge also gives him some Smart Guy characteristics, allowing Captain Kirk to simply exist, supported by his colleagues.
Decades later, The Next Generation breaks down the players into the one-a-piece method of the trope. Captain Picard is again our Leader. Ryker, the second in command, is our Lancer. Dianna is an emphatic therapist, making her our Heart. Warf, a Klingon warrior, is our Big Guy. Data is an android, filling in the role as Smart Guy. This is the simplest way to set up a team. Everyone has pretty clear roles, and there is hardly any significant overlap. If you’ve seen the series, you know that the simple setup works for this story, allowing more focus on plot than characters. TNG focuses largely on creative worldbuilding, vast adventures, and unique scenarios. There was no need to over-complicate things by splitting the focus evenly between plot and characters.
Another couple decades pass, and we get our next great run in the series Voyager. In stark contrast to The Next Generation’s plot-driven story, Voyager feels almost completely character driven. We, again, start simple with Captain Janeway as the Leader. Chakotay is the second in command and plays the Lancer, as well as a fairly spiritual version of the Heart. Pretty straightforward. In this generation, I consider the technology to be the main “Big Guy” as it does a lot of the plot-driven heavy lifting. That leaves us with a really interesting setup for the role of Smart Guy. B’Elanna is far-and-above the best engineers; The Doctor is a hologram with access to an infinite amount of data with no limit on mental capacity like humans; Seven-of-Nine is a Borg — a species that thrives on accumulated knowledge from other civilizations galaxy-wide — so she knows more about the universe than the rest of the crew combined. In a story like Star Trek, it is important to have a wide range of knowledge on your team at any time. This setup puts a strong focus on the internal conflicts of the show, minimizing the need for physically strong characters. The writers devote a lot of time to problem solving, both academic and emotional; they even give Janeway a handful of episodes to explore the relationship between leading and taking care of one’s emotional state.
Each generation has its own take on power and skill distribution. I’d say that Star Trek’s only baseline consistency is actually in their Leader characters. They are generally only that: the Leader. As with many main protagonists, they are well-rounded in everything, while other characters take up specific support roles for each trope. Obviously, with such large casts, each person can bring something a little different to the table to balance out the mix. It’s important to consider how each character is vital to the success of the team. How would your team work without any one primary member? If the team would function fine, maybe reconsider that character’s value in your story.
There is no one-size-fits-all mold for any team. In fact, that nuance is what makes readers want to keep engaging. It is important to look at your story and decide how nuanced your team needs to be to fully benefit the story. An awesome skill/power dynamic is an easy point of interest for your reader to latch onto, but it isn’t always necessary to every story. Using tropes like the five-man-band makes your characters easier to understand and remember, even if your reader has never had the trope explained to them. While it isn’t the only way to work, it is an effective method to consider. The biggest benefit is the versatility and variety you can get while staying in this format. It keeps your team in check without taking away the freedom you have as an author. The possibilities are endless!
That’s all for this week. Next Monday, I’m considering annotating the team I built in my current WIP, Tales of Drynic. If you’d be interested in seeing that analysis, I’d love it if you left a comment down below!