Thinking About Story Teams: Part One: Definition

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

18 thoughts on “Thinking About Story Teams: Part One: Definition

  1. I have what might amount to a silly question. Using your definition of team doesn’t wild ride have a team within it’s community? The only place I can think of where it might not match up is that the character arcs don’t necessarily match up to the team’s goals, but it still seems like a team to me. I’m wondering why it doesn’t work for you I guess? Sorry if that’s rude.

    1. It’s not rude at all. Yep, it has a team, we just didn’t conceive of it as a team. I’d have to go back and look at it to analyze it now.
      I think Bob and I just let the characters assemble. The original Guardia was a five-man band, I think. Okay, now I have to go back and look.

      1. Yay! I may have been helpful! 🙂 I love reading your analysis of stories (and hearing in on PopD) so I’m glad I could contribute in a small way.

  2. The fine line of demarcation is well illustrated by comparing the film Sneakers with the pulp era Doc Savage magazines. On Sneakers though Martin Bryce is the leader and face of the group, each person brings dynamic and useful things to the group, even Mary McDonald’s character, who isn’t an official member of the team. All of them act like protagonists. For Doc Savage, Doc is the protagonist, and though members of his group show up a lot and have their own special skills, Doc can best any of them plus an array of skills none of them have. So it’s more a protagonist with supporters. (From the conventions of the era all are male save the color of Doc’s cousin Pat who shows up from time to time) Sneakers brings up a lot of the Doc Savage group vibe, but they’re different, and Martin isn’t able to best all of them at their areas of specialty. That’s why the Sneakers team works as a unit, while in the vast array of Doc Savage stories if someone’s missing it doesn’t wreck their chances.

    1. That’s it exactly. I think in an interesting team, the leader is first among equals, willing to listen to others and turn power over to them in the moment if it’s required. Leverage is like that.
      But I also think there has to be a clear understanding of who’s the leader, and the group has to be willing to follow that leader, a tacit understanding that the guy in charge is in charge for a reason. That’s one of the big failings of Legends: Nobody listened to Rip, and that turned out to be a good thing. This season, Sara’s in charge, and everybody does what she says. They may question her before the plan starts, and she explains things, but once the plan is in motion, what Sara says, goes. It’s made them so much more efficient and effective, and in turn, it’s made the stories so much better.

  3. I have Gilmore Girls on the brain because I’m doing a rewatch before the new episodes come out, but this 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. immediately made me think of Taylor in a literal sense (Town Selectman, trying to mold Stars Hollow to his will, almost never successfully) and Emily in an emotional sense (Matriarch, trying to mold Lorelai and Rory to her will, with varying degrees of success).

    Which led me to the realization that the Gilmores (plus Luke) might actually fit the Five Man Band trope. Emily is the leader, Lorelai thinks she’s the leader but she’s actually the lancer, Rory’s the smart guy, Richard’s the big guy, and Luke’s the chick.

    They’re a team, but a dysfunctional one, because they all interpret their stated goal of getting Rory the future she deserves in very different (often contradictory) ways. It starts out easy enough, getting her into the private school, and then the college she wants, then it gets messy. So when it starts to break down in seasons 4/5/6 it’s because they’re not working towards the same goal anymore. And season 7 doesn’t work because they’re not a team anymore in any sense, just five people randomly intersecting with no goals at all (because the writing that season is bananas and has no underlying structure or logical character motivation).

    This is really interesting. I’m going to continue my rewatch in much more analytical frame of mind.

    1. One thing I’m extrapolating from this is that you can use that “what skill/trait does this person possess that makes him or her necessary” to apply to story casts in general. It’s just a different way of looking at, “If this person can be cut, cut him or her.” It’s tempting to want to keep a character who’s cute or funny or whatever, but if he or she doesn’t have an active role or a skill necessary to the story, then he or she goes.

      1. Well, you might have to cut them from the core team, but you don’t have to cut them from the story completely.

        If Hawkgirl/Hawkman had been guest stars they would have been interesting, rather than a drag. Make the (trimmed down) team’s first mission “save this couple Savage has been tormenting for thousands of years”, stretch it over a handful of episodes, and you’ve got juice. Not only is it a great device for showing off the mechanics of time travel (jumping to their different incarnations) but you’ve got great payoff at the end: they’re free of Savage, they’re together, they’re superheroes. Send them off into the sunset with the implication that they’re going to be allies if they pop up in the future, and now the team has a victory over Savage, is starting to learn their way around the time travel thing, and is starting to bond.

        Cute/funny/cool may not make a character an essential member of the Team, but it could still enhance the story.

        1. I think my problem with the Hawks was that they weren’t cute, funny, or cool. Carter was pretty much a block of solid wood sexually harassing Kendra. Kendra kept whining about being a barista only the week before and now she’s a demi-goddess, damn it. Her romance with Ray was pretty much Goofy meets Blank (and I like Ray). She has a chance to save the team, Rip’s family, and the freaking world, and she refuses because it will leave Carter a mindless drone, even though she knows he’s immortal and will reincarnate. And how many times does she get kidnapped? I don’t think it was the actors, I think it was the way the parts were written (although better acting might have helped) but in the end, the skill they were recruited for–they’re the only people who can kill Savage even though they’ve failed 206 times–is negated when the team splits into thirds and two of the Savages are killed without the Hawks.

          I think Ray was similarly aimless for most of the run, but he’s cute, funny, and endearing in his lack of cool, so I’m good with keeping him. Also, he used to be able to shrink, which is occasionally a very useful skill.

    2. With you on the GG rewatch, Jessi. 🙂 Just did the same in prep for the new release.

      My takeaway, though, was that overall I still love how they made a community, not just of the town and all its characters, but within the family dynamics. As a writer, do I see areas I’d do differently? Absolutely. But they do such a fab job of blending humour & emotional journey that I’m happy to go along for the ride.

      So looking forward to the new show.

  4. I’d love to see an analysis of the Angel team within this context, because they were much more soap opera and at odds with each other, and you could tell the writers had struggles with the role of each character in the team. (especially compared to the Scoobies)

  5. Oh, this is great. I didn’t realize it until I read this post, but I think my next story (after this WIP) is going to involve a team. I’ve been thinking about (and worrying about) how many damn characters are starting show up, and if I put it in the context of a team, I don’t have to worry about that. (Just have to worry about the million other things.)

    Basically, I agree with your number two about distinct and important skill sets for each member, but I want to quibble with the redundancy aspect. (Thinking this through still.) In a TV series, or a comic book, or a long book series, each character having two or three skill sets with a little bit of overlap can help keep the story tootling along. Maybe Character A is a Telepath with some minor Healing; B is a Healer with some Psychokinesis, and so on. Maybe A is in training with B and you can set up a mentor relationship. Perhaps B is out of action for some reason, A steps in, and fails — and feels guilty and unhappy about the whole thing. Maybe A and B disagree on a course of healing, providing some necessary conflict.

    On the same lines, the Leader who Deserves to Lead may take some time finding himself/herself. You’d need a long arc where this slowly develops. In a super-long story, it can become a passing-the-baton story that pivots the series into a brand new arc and life, for that matter.

    But yeah, generally I get very annoyed when the “leader” of the team is incompetent and I don’t know why everyone is following him/her. I may not make it to Book Three, where all his/her hardships have hardened him/her into a Shining Diamond of a Leader.

    (-: Lots of stuff to think about.

    1. DH and I were (almost) arguing over this yesterday. I was trying to explain that I thought Star Trek was a team during the original series and a community after they expanded into movies, but the moment I said Uhura wasn’t necessary to the team he got all het up and defensive, so I might be way off base.

      I think she evolved into something fantastic, but starting out her character was a tool to convey information; she didn’t personally drive plot. In the beginning (wow, Trek as biblical… DH would be proud.) there was the Kirk the leader, Spock the brain, and McCoy the everyman. Then, to shake things up they’d make it Kirk the leader, Spock the genius, McCoy the counterpoint, and Scotty the everyman. I don’t qualify as a Trekker/ie so I may be missing nuance, but I’ve been around it my whole life and I can tell you details about the main three, but the others just blend together a lot. They do a job and provide backup. Later the writers expand the stories and give the others (Sulu, Chekov, Uhura) backgrounds and special skills and personalities, Oh my! but I’m pretty set on the idea of the original television series being a three man team.

      (Upon investigation of TVTropes, they have Trek as a Power Trio, so I may actually be right this time! I won’t tell my husband, but I thought it’d be okay to tell you all. 😉 )

    2. The Leader who Deserves to Lead is a thing in fantasy, wouldn’t you say? Like Taran in “The Chronicles of Prydain.” It takes five books for him to work through immaturity and take on the role, but all the way through the other characters are pushing him and the challenges he faces are shaping him.

      I commented in Part Two about the TV show “Numbers” and I think it’s there, too. The central character is op command but has a lot of self-doubt. Many of the most interesting moments in that show have nothing to do with the crime story of the week.

  6. I love all of this! And I have all the Leverage episodes on DVR. I need to move that to the top of my binge-watch list.

    A few weeks ago, I realized the group in my WIP are going to meld into a team around the halfway point of the book. This post has me thinking about how to deepen the characters by thinking in terms of skillsets. As far as describing them, I haven’t been thinking in terms of trope so much as a body. The protag’s ex-best friend is the heart, ex-best friend’s husband is the brain, protag’s love interest is the brawn, and the protag is the guts (which makes her the fearless leader). Then there’s the ex-best friend’s stepdaughter, who is too young to be officially on the team, but I think she’s the soul, as the thing that pulls them together as a team is a threat to her future.

    I do have a question: IIRC there was discussion of a Leverage episode where Nate abdicates as leader (starts drinking again?) and the team saves him. Does anyone know which one that is, or at least which season?

    1. He drinks pretty heavily through most of the seasons. “The 12 Step Job” is the one where they put him and Parker in a halfway house, but he walks away at the end looking for a drink.
      I think he has a line somewhere in a later season where he says something like he was a good leader drunk (Season One) and a bad leader sober (Season Two starts with him almost going into a bar and then the accident happens) so he’s going to try a middle path. The start of season four has him almost dying of hypothermia because of the alcoholism, but I can’t remember if that was residual damage or if he was actually drinking again and that’s what caused his collapse. I’m pretty sure he drinks socially throughout Season Four.

      Since it’s “starts drinking again,” I’m guessing Season Three? That’s the he’s out of jail and he has to bring down Moreau season.

      ETA: There’s an episode where the team stages an intervention in the Leverage offices. It’s not to stop him drinking, it’s to get him back his sense of purpose. SO they give him a problem they can’t solve and he starts spitballing ideas to help them and then he gets caught up in it. Which one was that? It comes before Sterling blows up the office, so it would have to be Season One? Season Two, Three, and Four, the office is in Nate’s apartment over the bar. Season Five it’s in Portland.

  7. This is timely. I thought my WIP was a (very small) community, but now I see that it’s a team. I could immediately off the top of my head name the functions of 3 of the 4, and coincidentally, I know my characterization of #4 is weak. Something to chew on!


Comments are closed.