Being a Better Writer: The Five-Man Band

Welcome back, readers, to another Monday! Which of course means another Being a Better Writer post. I do want to keep these to Monday if at all possible. Work shifts permitting.

But first, some news. I’ve picked up a few more reviews, moving my total ever closer to my year-end goal. Who says you can’t get started early? If I do the math, I’m currently sitting at, between Goodreads and Amazon, a grand total of 190 reviews and ratings. Pretty much an even split, numbers-wise, between the two.

By the end of the year, I’d like to double that. 400. That’s the goal, and I’ll be keeping a tally going, mentioning it on here from time to time.

The next milestone? 200. I’m only 10 away. Then 300, and then the goal. As for what will happen when I hit these? Well, outside of celebration, I’m not really sure yet. Probably something cool.

Aside from that, there isn’t too much news to wax on. Progress on Hunter/Hunted moves toward its conclusion. I’m somewhere in the final act, and finally getting a handle on some of the story’s more difficult concepts and elements. Since it’s a freebie fan-project and not something for sale, as usual I’ve experimented with some new things and choices. We’ll see what readers make of them, but I’ve definitely already come away with a few lessons of “that worked, that didn’t” to keep in mind for future projects.

And crud, I may as well mention that I missed a project for this year when I spoke about upcoming work in a recent post. I didn’t forget Fireteam Freelance. Or Starforge. Or the yet-unnamed-Halo-novel pitch. But I did forget a big one:

Axtara: Banking and Finance.

You might not remember this one; it was the first “short” story I wrote for the LTUE Dragons anthology, only for the story to quickly balloon out of the realm of “short” (always a stretch for me, even by the collections broad definitions) and into “Novella or Novel.” So it got set aside in favor of A Game of Stakes, which has already been submitted (so now we play the waiting game).

definitely have to devote some time to Axtara this year, as the idea is far to fun to leave untouched. A dragon going into investment banking? Yes, there’s a fun story there. It just wasn’t a short one.

Okay, and with that, enough news! Let’s talk about writing! Specifically, about the Five-Man Band.

Now, hopefully you’ve heard this term bandied about before. You likely have, especially if you’re someone who follows the games industry, where “Five-Man Band” seems to be tossed around with regularity. At least, a bit more regularity than I see it used when discussing books.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a valid term to understand or use. To the contrary, I feel it’s a very useful term to understand regardless of what you’re writing because of what it illustrates and brings to the forefront.

But that’s getting ahead of things. Let’s jump back to the start for a moment so that we can make sure everyone’s on the same page, and talk about what the Five-Man Band is first.

So, what’s the Five-Man Band? It’s an archetype collection.

And some of you just glazed over, so let me try that again. What I mean by that is that the “Five-Man Band” is a trope name given to a collection of characters, each one fitting a role or mold that naturally compliments the other four. Sort of a “five parts become one whole” idea, but extended to a team of characters. Often seen any sort setting where you have a team that gathers together for one purpose or another, fictional or real, the Five-Man Band is basically an observation on types of team members and roles that work well together in a number of ways, both narratively (five characters is an easy number to follow) and in-universe.

Now, a quick note here: Unlike some, I don’t hold that  a Five-Man Band has to be composed of five members and five members only. I’ve seen some arguing that it’s so, and while I would agree that trying to cram the roles down into two or three people runs the risk of expecting too much from your characters and would create an unstable dynamic (if that confuses you, don’t worry, it should make sense in a minute), I also don’t think that the number needs be restrained to five. I’m one of those who is entirely okay with the Five-Man Band being, for example, four or six members (there is or was a tag-along trope to this at one point called “The Sixth Ranger”, for example). As long as the roles work, it’s a Five-Man Band.

Okay, that clear? Good. So back to discussing what the Five-Man Band is. A good way to think of it is five roles that usually make for an effective team or group of people: Leader, Lancer, Smart Guy, Big Guy, and … well, the traditional name for the last role is “The Chick” but only because in the era of storytelling the initial roles were identified, it was most often filled by a female character. Me? I prefer to call it Balancer or Peacemaker, because that’s their role within the group.

Okay, so those are the “Five Men” (or women, or centaurs, or whatever, it’s just a generic usage) of the Five-Man Band … so what does all that mean? And, as I’m sure some of you are wondering at this point, why should you care?

Well, as to the second, we should care because if we’re writing a story that has a group or team of characters, looking at the Five-Man Band is a great indicator of what we need to make that group work. Above I mentioned that it applies to reality as well as fiction, and there’s truth in that: It does. We can use any generic business analogy we want here (“A company is like an enormous clock,” anyone?) but the sheer truth of it is that a team that works well together and compliments their styles, personality, and abilities makes for a more effective team.

So why should we care? Because the Five-Man Band is the working team. It’s a broad archetype of roles that still allows for development of character and a large degree of flexibility, while at the same time being applicable to almost any team situation. In other words, we should care because being able to look at our own teams of characters with the Five-Man Band in mind can help us identify potential weak or problem areas, both narratively (for example, a team that lacks a majorly important role won’t seem realistic if they’re always successful and awesome despite having a glaring hole in their ranks obvious to many) and in character (the Five-Man Band plays off of character, meaning you won’t have a true Five-Man Band if that character isn’t explored).

Basically, the Five-Man Band is the framework for a good, effective team, in reality and in fiction. If we understand that framework, then we can pluck it out of our writer’s toolbox as needed and work it into the framework of our story. Once we understand how the frame interacts, both with external elements and itself, we can also understand how to cut or add parts of it in (for example, challenge the team by removing the Lancer and see what happens).

Okay, I think you get the picture there, or at least are starting to. You should care. So then, what are these roles, and how do you use them?


Well, let’s start with the first of the Five: The Leader. This one’s kind of obvious … but then not so at the same time. The role of the leader is, well, the leader. This is the character that, by virtue of rank or capacity, everyone looks to as the one with the plan. They’re the one that takes charge and makes the calls for the rest of the group.

Now, here’s the thing, and the reason I said it’s not so obvious: The leader can come in a variety of flavors, from the one who comes up with ridiculously crazy plans on the fly to the one who just charges ahead and is in charge because they take charge. Or they’re the one with all the experience, making them able to stay cool and adjust plans on the fly which they then relay to someone else.

They can be any of those, or none of them as long as they in some area lead those they’re “in charge of.” That’s the key here: Every group needs a leader. And the leader is exactly that.

Now, some of the more experienced among you might be asking yourselves the question of why said person is the leader, and if you are, that’s good, because that’s one of those things you need to figure out. Despite what modern business management may think, being a leader isn’t just saying “I’m the leader now, that makes me awesome and right” (I really don’t like corporate America largely because of all the problems that come from this belief). Being a leader is more than just having ideas. It’s action. It’s respect. You need a team of people that will actually follow when you lead.

So while your team may need a leader, there’s more to someone being a leader than saying that they are the leader. And while I could spend a whole post on that alone, I won’t. Suffice it to say there are a lot of resources out there on good leaders, but a great place to start is looking at what kind of leaders your characters would follow and why, then move from there.

With that, let’s move on to the second role—


The Lancer. A good way to think of the Lancer is that they’re often the second-in-command. The back-up leader. The right-hand of the leader. At the same time, they’re a foil.

Now, we’ve talked in detail about foils before, so I won’t do a deep dive into that since you can just go check it out there, but I will talk about why they’re a foil: contrast, for good or bad.

See, the Lancer is the second to the leader. For example, in The Dusk Guard Saga, Captain Song is clearly the Leader. His second in command, Lieutenant Hunter? He’s the Lancer, and it’s worth noting in universe that Captain Song chose Hunter as his second precisely because of their contrasting approaches to command. Captain Song is a grizzled combat veteran who’s by-the-book and prone to head-on solutions to things, which is great for some situations but not others. Hunter, meanwhile, is laid back and relaxed, but understands that there are times when decorum and protocol are required.

In other words, they’re an effective leader and lancer duo because they specifically balance one another out. Hunter’s relaxed nature (while still knowing when it’s time to be serious) serves as a deliberate, in-universe foil to his superior’s more by-the-book nature and gruff personality. At the same time, Captain Song’s own nature balances out Hunter’s relaxation and keeps him focused.

Now, note that this is just an example of how the Lancer-Leader relationship can work, not how it always does. They could be foils to one another that don’t work well, for example. thrown together by force for drama or even comedy (seriously look for movies with a team theme where this happens). For example, in Band of Brothers, one of the sources of early conflict for the company is that their commanding officer is not a very good officer, yes, but also that he rides completely roughshod over the man in his Lancer role. Not only are they foils to one another, but the Leader refuses to let the Lancer serve as a foil or balance. The result is that his command is critically fractured, leading to all sorts of problems in training that eventually see him removed from any chance of leading his men into combat (they are instead placed under a new leader).

Then later in the show, they flip this to a new angle when the once-Lancer is promoted to Leader and he begins working with lancers that serve as good foils and fill-ins to his own weak and strong areas. And then again when he’s assigned a Lancer who cannot fulfill even the most basic part of his role, which leads to a number of otherwise preventable casualties and another character stepping into their shoes to be the Lancer.

Point being that the Lancer is a second to the leader, the number two, and that this can be explored in a large variety of ways depending on the story being told and the characters in question. Good or bad at it, though, the Lancer’s role is to be the second to the leader.


Third, we have The Smart Guy. This role’s, well, role, is pretty obvious just based on the name. Whether it’s a technical wizard or a master planner, the Smart Guy is the member of the group that’s always got an idea on something, no matter what, and is the one who’s the “brain” of the group. They’ve got the knowledge, the experience, the ideas, etc.

Commonly in stories relegated to the small-shrimpy-but-smart character, aka the nerd with the big glasses, but with more flexibility now, this is the character who’s going to be the brains of the group. Maybe not the application (that can be the leader), though again, this can vary, but the one in the group that’s got the smarts.

Now, I do disagree with the more “classical” approaches to this role. Traditionally, this is the “nerd” role. IE that “small-shrimpy-but-smart” I mentioned above, and indeed, some people hold that if the character isn’t physically weaker than the rest of the group, than they can’t be the smart guy.

Thankfully, this is changing. A lot of newer, more modern stories are realizing that the stereotype there is dead and that the core of the Smart Guy is their brains, not their lack of brawn or ability. Take for example Stallone’s Expendables movies, where the smartest member of the team is also their largest … but his plans tend to be a little too complicated for the rest of the group as well as short-sighted, so his ideas and concepts, while mostly sound, need the Leader to round them out.

Or look at Gears of War, where Baird is the mechanic genius of the team who’s far smarter than the rest of the team when it comes to vehicles, computers, anthropology (he makes a sarcastic comment about this one more than once), and a scattering of other disciplines. But he’s also a lousy leader with an abrasive personality and while he can tell the rest of the characters that they need to get something or be at a place, as well as various ways to get there, he’s not nearly as good at the Leader as making the calls on the exact specifics.

I could pull out other examples as well, but I think two is enough to make my point. Smarts and intelligence in some capacity are the strength of the Smart Guy, but no longer at the expense of all other skills and talents. They’re the primary strength, what they bring to the team above all else, but they no longer have to be the only one.


We get something similar with the fourth role, The Big Guy. Again, this one is pretty self-explanatory, and also again we run into the same old “classic” cliches.

 

The Big Guy is the powerhouse of the team, be it brute force, size, and strength, or martial skill and talent. And … well, that’s pretty much it. The strongman. Or at least, that’s it in the classical sense.

Again, the modern growth of this role has diluted it a bit. It’s not uncommon at all to see multiple characters exhibiting traits of the Big Guy. Or to see the Big Guy fall well outside of the more classic appearances such as “Gentle Giant” or “The Boisterous Bruiser.” They still have elements of them, but more complex stories have begun to explore and widen the angle a bit more.

Where does that leave the role of the Big Guy? Well, the Big Guy is the one you call on when something needs to be done. The Big Guy might rely on the leadership of the leader, and the coaching of the Lancer guarding their flanks, but at the end of the day? The Big Guy is the one that goes in to solve the problem via their abilities in a straightforward way.

Now, it’s worth noting that despite the connotations of the title, this doesn’t have to be physical. It can be mental, emotional, or any other area where something “big” can help. A Big Guy, for example, often can be that solely because they’ve got the biggest heart or the biggest smile, serving as an anchor to the rest of the group. Everyone can relate to the Big Guy, they’re a great listener, even if they offer no answers. They’ll always have the back of their team.

And sure, in many settings with combat, they will be the one that’s the most skilled at it, either from sheer “wall of meat” status or talent, but they often end up being the armored anchor of the group as well.

Again, this means that this role can kind of be split up in a variety of ways. Which is why I mentioned earlier that I hold a “Five-Man Band” can be made of sometimes fewer or more individuals. For example, in The Dusk Guard Saga, the titular Guard technically have three Big Guys: Sabra, Captain Song, and Nova. Sabra is the closest to the classic example, being extremely skilled in martial pursuits, but Captain Song is a more classic “wall of meat” example, and Nova is their magical powerhouse (AKA, Magic Big Guy).

So there’s no one Big Guy in that group (though Sabra is closest) but rather three different characters that all have various aspects of it depending on the situation. And that works. The role is still there, but it’s one that can be divided up in what it accomplishes for the group.

The role serves its purpose, even if it is one that can be divided up. It still needs to be there. All groups need the Big Guy in one way or another, either as the muscle, or the emotional anchor.


Now, with that said, let’s move to the last of the five: The Chick, or as I prefer to call it, The Balance.

Now, the thing with these roles, as mentioned, is that each one of them is needed in some capacity for a good group to work together. The Leader, for example, needs to make the calls, while the Lancer keeps them focused and assists with right-hand elements. The Smart Guy tackles the complex, immediate stuff, or comes up with a plan for the Leader to execute and guide in, while the Big Guy carries it out, batters obstacles aside, and anchors the team.

The Balancer? They’re the much needed final role. They watch the team.

This is why the Balancer is often a medic (and often called that too): They are the one responsible for the mental health and mood of the team. They’re the grease, the scales that keep things balanced. They modulate the differences between the team, the trends, the struggles, the frictions. They serve often as a devil’s advocate, not to try and revolt against the leader, but to make sure that all angles have been examined, that they aren’t charging ahead without considering all options.

Another way to look at them is the “mother hen” of the team. Their job is to be a part of the team while keeping the team safe from itself. They diffuse tensions, calm rivalries (or sometimes fan them if needed). They work with the Big Guy to provide an emotional anchor the team can rely on, but where the Big Guy will often be the anchor, the Balancer will point members at the anchor, or help them become an anchor themselves.

As I said, they watch the team. This can take on a lot of approaches. In The Dusk Guard, it was Dawn, the team medic and psychiatrist, but it doesn’t have to be so literal. Really, any member of the group that looks out for the group’s welfare first and foremost is the Balancer, be they a philosophical warrior or a camp follower that got swept along.

And again, like all the other roles, this one can vary a bit, or even be blended. Big Guy Balancer is a common modern one, for example. You can also give a Balancer skills and talents to shore up other weak areas of the team that are useful to have, but may not be common.

Basically, all teams want a Balancer.


Phew. That was a lot of typing.

Okay, so now we know what each one is. So, armed with that knowledge, now what?

Simple. Put it in your toolbox for when you need it. For when your story calls for it. When you’re writing about a group of people that will be working together. And when you are? Then bring out the Five-Man framework and see how it fits into your story framework. What parts you want to include or exclude.

Yes, I say exclude. A good Five-Man Band? They’re hard to stop. You need a high challenge to stop a team that fits together really well.

But a team that’s missing one of the five? Much easier to stop, and the characters therefore will face much more struggle in pursuit of their goals. Which means that you can poke and play with the framework to fit your story.

For example, suppose you only have three characters to “fill” the Five-Man Band, and none of them make for a good Lancer to the Leader? Or a good Big Guy? Maybe they don’t have a Balancer? What sort of struggle will that bring the team as they push forward in your plot?

Basically, the reason it’s good to know the attributes and character roles of a Five-Man Band is so you know what an ideal, functioning group can be made up of, what the component parts are. Then, not only as you plan, but as you write, you can identify those parts in your story and characters, then determine how to best use them to serve the story. What happens to your Smart Guy when they’re cut off from the Leader? Or the Lancer? Can your case handle not having one or two of the roles?

In other words, knowing how a Five-Man Band works when balanced is a great way to understand how and why you can imbalance it in your story.  What parts of the framework to cut away or to keep in service of what you’re looking for in the story.

So there you have it. The Five-Man Band, what it is, why you should know about it, and how it can help you with your story. Learn it, stick it in the toolbox, and bring it out when needed.

Good Luck. Now get writing.

And if you’ve found this post and others like it helpful, please consider supporting via Patreon or purchasing one of my many books!

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