I’ve been thinking about fictional teams a lot because I’m writing one. Krissie was here this week, and we were
arguing discussing the idea, and she pointed out that the theory depends on how I define “story team” or, in fact, how I define “team” in general. Since I’m also disagreeing with TV Tropes on their discussion of TV teams as a five-man-band (let’s start with that name, shall we?), I figured it was time to define my term.
Here’s my definition of “team” in story:
A team is a group of people who
1. Have a common goal that unites them.
2. Have a set of skills that complement each other and are directly useful in attaining that goal, no redundancies.
3. Have individual character arcs that create the character arc of the team as a whole.
4. Develop individual relationships within the team that keep them from being cogs in a machine.
5. Have a leader who deserves to be the leader, whose world view and focus gives the team its identity.
And then not as part of a story definition in general, but as part of my preference in teams:
Are diverse in gender, race, and sexuality, avoiding stereotypes (looking at you, TV Tropes with your “Chick” designation).
I had written a huge post with lots of examples, but I think to start this
argument discussion, I’ll just stick to those five things. Then tomorrow I’ll do a post that analyzes three very different TV teams and my brainstorming for Nita’s team. Why not books, you ask? Because the book series that I’ve read don’t have teams. They have communities which are very different things, in spite of the post I put a couple of years ago that discussed teams and communities as if they were the same thing. A good team is also a community, but many communities are not teams. Why not?
1. Most communities do not have a common goal that unites them. They’re groups of people that share a geographic location and possibly some other circumstance that brings them together (they’re in a workplace, they’re in a family, they’re in school, etc.) but they feel no allegiance to one overwhelming, common goal.
2. Most communities do not have a set of skills that complement each other. Some workplaces might have people with common skills–they’re all teachers, they’re all salespeople–but the members weren’t chosen because each had a separate but complementary skill.
3. Most story communities are made up of people that have individual character arcs, but those arcs usually don’t create the character arc of the community as a whole. When they do, the story is most likely horror, “The Lottery” or “Children of the Corn.”
4. Most community stories develop individual relationships within the community, but these can weaken the community as often as they reinforce it.
5. Most communities have a leader, deserving or not, who tries to impress his or her world view on the community to give it its identity. If the community doesn’t have a common goal to unite them, the harder the leader tries to impose his personal goals, the more likely the community is to rebel.
So what makes a story team?
1. A team has a common goal that unites them
“We’re going to save people about to be murdered.”
“We’re going to stop corrupt people from preying on the weak.”
“We’re going to stop an immortal madman from destroying the world.”
In single protagonist stories, the protagonist’s goal drives the action. In team stories, the team goal fuels the story. In both cases, the individual passion behind the goal determines the emotional strength of the plot. In team stories, it usually begins with the leader’s passion for his project–Finch is driven to save people after his horrified realization that his rejection of Nathan’s plan kept him from preventing Nathan’s death; Nate’s inability to save his son from corporate greed drives him to take down the corrupt whenever he can, Rip’s grief and guilt over his family’s deaths drives him to try to erase Savage from the time line in order to save them. But at some point, the team as a whole has to accept that goal as their own, care about it as much as the leader does. Until then, they’re just a group of people working for a boss.
Therefore when constructing a story team, you can start with the leader’s goal, but keep in mind that everybody on the team is going to have to care as much about that goal as the leader does by the last act.
2. Team members should have sets of skills that complement each other and are directly useful in attaining that goal, no redundancy.
The whole point of a team, any team, is to tackle a project, be it swindling a grifter or saving the world. Teams therefore need the skills for that particular project. It doesn’t matter how good a team member is at physics if the problem doesn’t require a physicist. The gold standard in teams for me will always be Leverage, and the showrunners there didn’t mess around, identifying team members by their skills in the show’s posters: Mastermind/Brains, Grifter, Hacker, Hitter, Thief. PoI’s beginning team was pretty much Brains and Brawn. The functioning team within the dysfunctional Legends team went by Killer, Klepto, Pyro. Labeling team members like this isn’t a dumbing down of characters; all of those labeled characters are complex and compelling. It’s a capsule description of the strengths and skills of each member, and listing them helps you see why they’re an effective team: They need each other’s skills to accomplish their goals.
Therefore when constructing a story team, identifying each team member by his or her skill set and listing them together can tell you if your team is a coherent group with complementary skills or just a bunch of people who can do random stuff.
3. Team members should have individual character arcs that are echoed in the character arc of the team as a whole.
While it may seem that we attach to a team because team stories are most interesting when the team is working together, if we don’t care about the team members as individual characters first, we won’t care about the team as a whole. Beyond that, if we care about the individual characters, but their characters and character arcs don’t inform the team, they’re not a team, they’re a community. The Leverage team began as five damaged people who preferred to work alone; each character’s arc was different in the way he or she learned not only to trust each other but also to value and protect the group as a whole, and those individual arcs were echoed in the arc of the team from strangers to working partners to family.
Therefore, when tracing the character arcs of the individuals in the team, it’s important to pull back and see how those arcs taken together also arc the team’s character.
4. Team members should develop individual relationships within the team that keep them from being cogs in the team machine.
This goes hand in hand with character arcs: One of the ways we develop character in fiction is through the relationships that character forms, how he or she acts in regard to other people, how other people react to him or her. So the members of your team may pair off in skilled partnerships that supersede the team (Nate/Eliot), in pseudo-parental relationships (Sophie/Parker, Nate/Hardison), in sibling relationships (Eliot/Hardison), in romantic relationships (Nate/Sophie, Parker/Hardison), or any kind of relationship you can devise. If those interlocking bonds within the team are acknowledged and respected by the team, they strengthen it and make it more effective.
Therefore, after you’ve analyzed your individual arcs, look at how each member of the team reacts to every other member of the team. That’s where your team dynamics, weaknesses, and strengths will play out in your story. (This is the place where large team stories start to come unglued; it’s just too damn many relationships.)
5. A strong team has a leader who deserves to be the leader, whose world view and focus gives the team its identity.
The leader, in this case, is the person on the team that people follow, not necessarily the designated person in charge, although it simples things up considerably if the designated leader is also the person everybody follows. The Machine Gang may not like everything Finch tells them to do or not do (“Stop killing people, Miss Shaw”), but they follow him because he’s the one who designed the system and assembled the team and because he’s their moral compass. Nate may be an arrogant drunk, but the Leverage team follows his orders because they know through experience that he sees the Big Picture and he will always save them if something goes wrong. These leaders deserve to be leaders because they have earned the respect of their teams.
Therefore your team leader (who is probably your protagonist but not always) has to appear to the reader or viewer to be the natural team leader, the one with the good plan who commands the respect and loyalty of the rest of the team.
Those are the five guidelines I’m going to use to analyze Nita’s team, which at present has nine members. Yes, that is too many. That’s why I’m analyzing sucessful teams. So tomorrow’s post is looking at four teams–Leverage’s Leverage Inc., Person of Interest‘s Machine Gang, Legends of Tomorrow‘s Waverider crew, and Nita’s assortment of humans, demons, and devils–to figure out where they succeed and where they fail as story teams.
Story Teams Part Two: Four Examples