Trope Talk: Five Man BandOn November 15, 2019 by Raul Dinwiddie
Yo. Who here plays tabletop RPGs? Show of hands? Yeah! Good stuff! Alright, for those of you who don’t, the main gist of it is that you and a bunch of your friends made characters and play around in a pre-made world where plot developments and major story decisions are made by the Game Master. It’s like the GM is writing a story around you, and you and your friends are working stuff out and providing character interactions in the context provided. Now the unique thing about an RPG is that even though you’re constructing a story, there is no main character. You’re *all* PCs and therefore all equally main characters. But because it would be boring if you were all playing the same protagonist, or even if one of you could carry the entire team, you’re suggested to branch out and fill different roles in the group. In general, there are five major roles that have to be filled to guarantee a balanced party. Fighter, tank, stealth, mage, and healer. Now this is basically the party balance for DnD, but different game systems lend themselves to different specific balances. In a game like Exalted, a typical balanced solar party would basically be a priest, an assassin, a diplomat, a mage, and a warrior. And in a sci-fi setting, the mage would probably be swapped out for a hacker. But basically, the general idea is that each of these characters contribute to specific strengths of the party so that together you’re equipped to handle a wide array of situations. So why am I rambling about this? Well because obviously you can also write a book like this! With a group of explicit protagonists, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, rather than one catch-all protagonist and a bunch of deuteragonists. The most prevalent version of this is the Five Man Band, and that’s what we’re going to be talking about today. The five man band is an extremely common and useful trope in modern media and it’s generally broken down into the following character archetypes: the Leader, the Lancer, the Big Guy, the Smart Guy, and the Heart. So let’s look at these archetypes in a little more detail. Starting at the top we have The Leader. This guy is, unsurprisingly, the team leader. And probably the most generically heroic of the bunch. Structurally, he’s the center of the team. He’ll have generally developed a relationship with every other member of the group and was probably one of the first members of the group during its initial formation. He’s generally a well-rounded close-range fighter and is the least likely to have some sort of specialized ability to augment those powers. He also conforms the least to my RPG thing from earlier since the leader stands a good chance of also being the hero, making him the central focus of the story, and the rest of the five man band secondary protagonists. But in a lot of cases, he’s actually NOT given much more plot precedence than the rest of the group, in which case all members of the party will share the protagonist label about equally. In general, the leader is balanced, a strong fighter, and can rally the other characters behind them without too much difficulty. One step out from the leader we get The Lancer. The lancer is pretty much a foil for the leader, which means their personal characterization is strongly based on the leader’s characterization. If the leader is calm, the lancer will be a hothead. If the leader’s a team player, the lancer will be a loner. If the leader’s inexperienced, the lancer will outclass him in everything but leading, but (in contrast) if the leader IS experienced, the lancer will explicitly have a lot to learn from him. The lancer generally has a complicated and deep relationship with the leader, usually either a form of rivalry or jealousy, but in rare cases a deep respect. Sometimes both. The lancer’s also generally most of the audience’s favorite character because they’re allowed a lot more character complexity than the leader– and if the leader comes across as too paragon, the lancer might be a realistic breath of fresh air. In some stories, the lancer has a really good relationship with the leader. They might disagree on occasion, but fundamentally they’ve got each other’s backs. In others, the lancer predominantly exists to question the leader’s judgement until he inevitably learns to respect the hard decisions and the burden of leadership. Or he turns evil for a week.
(I’d say it’s about 70/30 odds on that one) Rounding out the central trio of the five man band, we have the heart. The heart is usually a girl, and sometimes that’s basically where her characterization ends, but in the more well-rounded cases, the heart is just that: the emotional center of the team. She’s more often than not a love interest for the leader or the lancer (or both) but more broadly she’s the team member responsible for keeping everybody else grounded. In a dramatic world with personal vendettas and villains every few feet, having a character that keeps your other characters from going too far is a valuable literary asset. She’s likely to be the most emotional and passionate member of the crew and her heroic or compassionate instincts might be what drives the group to heroically intervene on the behalf of others. She’ll be very compassionate and kind towards others, which doesn’t always make her nice, but she *is* usually a nice person. Beyond that, however, her personality and combat capabilities are totally up in the air. She could be demure or aggressive, a total support character or a powerhouse and anything in between! However, due to party balance rules, if she *does* have a combat role, she’ll usually end up filling some niche combat capacity that none of the teammates explicitly have without much overlap. Being an archer is pretty common, or in a superhero setting she’s probably psychic, but more often than not, the heart is fairly useless in a straight fight. So these three tend to be the central trifecta of a five man band, and usually can operate as a power trio if the other two characters aren’t there, but not always. Sometimes the heart instead forms the trio with the last two members: The Big Guy and The Smart Guy. The Big Guy is big. Usually in body, but sometimes just metaphorically. The big guy plays the role of tank, and frequently (but not always) outpaces the rest of the team in terms of raw damage dealing and/or damage absorption. If the leader is well-rounded in terms of overall skill, the big guy will probably be stronger than him. Conversely, if the leader’s main thing is being insanely competent or good in a fight, the big guy will probably be almost as good. Or if the leader’s thing is just being super strong, the big guy will basically just be a damage sponge. If the big guy is male, he’s usually going to be physically big (or at least tall) but if she’s female, she’ll probably just be insanely tough (and maybe tall). Beyond that, their character is largely undefined. Some big guys are really nice gentle giants, some aren’t. Most big guys are super loyal and good friends with the rest of the team. If the writer wants to give some member of the team a quirky trait that’s not directly relevant to anything, it’s pretty safe to give it to the big guy. Maybe he’ll be an expert cook, or only communicate in incomprehensible roaring noises– you’ve got a lot of leeway on this one. And last but (usually) not least, we have the Smart Guy. Where the big guy mostly plays the role of being bigger than everyone else on the team (physically or metaphorically), the smart guy plays the equally specialized role of being *smarter* than everyone on the team. If they need a plan, the smart guy’s probably going to be the one to put it together. If they need some exposition, the smart guy will know just what to say. Generally the smart guy will be pretty abysmal in a straight fight, but luckily he’s rarely going to find himself in a straight fight. In a sci-fi setting, he’s probably a tech genius or a roboticist, or just an actual robot (in which case, he probably *will* be good in a fight). In a fantasy, he is GUARANTEED to be a mage. He might not be able to throw a punch, but that’s usually what the rest of the team is for. In some circumstances (usually anime), the smart guy actually *can* fight, but has almost no raw power and instead will have to carefully devise a strategy in order to win with what abilities and equipment he has. In stories where the leader has a well-rounded skillset (and occasionally devises cunning strategies on his own), the smart guy is the one who’ll figure out what he is doing and handily explain it to the rest of the team– demonstrating both the leader’s intelligence and his own. Also, the smart guy can totally be a girl, but if she is she’ll probably be more of a tomboy, and less conventionally attractive than the heart. Plus, if you want to give a member of the team some kind of physical disability, the smart guy is the one most likely to get it. (Mostly because the role isn’t inherently as physically active as the other four, and because in a sci-fi setting, they’d probably build their own prosthetics.) And from a neurodivergence standpoint, putting them somewhere on the spectrum (or at least implying that they might be) is fairly common, although not usually very well-handled. Anyway. Now, of course, like all tropes, the five man band is flexible. If we played by these rules totally rigidly, we wouldn’t actually have that many explicit five man bands. These are general guidelines and trends, but there’s always room to maneuver. For one thing, five man bands routinely have additional support members: The Sixth Ranger is the trope name for an additional team member and the Tagalong Kid is the trope for the inexplicably untraumatized child character that frequently joins the party. Mentor characters can also sometimes attach themselves to the group, and, of course, sometimes you end up with hybridized tropes in the character roles. Sometimes the big guy also fills the role of the heart, or the lancer is also the idea guy, or the smart guy fills a non-combat leadership role, or the team leader isn’t the hero (but one of the other four is). While they don’t count as five man bands, you can have groups of three or four central characters that collectively fill all the tropes of the five man band, just reshuffled to fit into fewer characters. To get an example of how the five man band can be remixed slightly without losing major dynamics, let’s break out the ol’ broken record and take a quick glance at the new Voltron again. Now this looks like it’d be perfect five man band material: there are five Paladins with two support characters (those being a princess and a quirky mentor). Of the Paladins, Shiro’s the leader, Keith is his lancer and right-hand man, and Hunk is indisputably the big guy, with Pidge as the smart guy. But Princess Allura fills the role of the heart, despite the fact that the major five man band in the story doesn’t actually include her. She’s one of the support characters. Instead, the five man band has Lance, who doesn’t clearly fall into ANY of the five man band tropes. If anything, he’s kinda a lancer to Keith (who is himself a lancer). This is because in the original show, the leader Shiro dies and Keith replaces him as team leader (with Lance as his lancer) So until that happens, Lance is basically a lancer’s lancer. (That was hard to say.) But the bottom line is, even though these five are the major character descriptors for a five man band, there’s plenty of room for leeway without losing the fundamental five-man-bandiness (Although, be warned, TVTropes is very explicit about only using examples that are *exactly* the textbook definition of the trope, with no character hybridizations allowed. I’m playing with a looser definition here because rules are dumb). Now before we go any further, now that we’ve got some sense for what the trope is made of, we ought to talk about where the trope as a whole comes from. There are two major sources for the five man band: The Mahābhārata and The Journey to the West. Frustratingly, neither one actually correlates perfectly to the modern concept of the five man band, but that’s just because tropes naturally evolve over time. In The Mahābhārata, we’ve got Yudhishthira in a leadership and smart guy role, Arjuna in a lancer and overall powerhouse role, Bhima is the classic big guy, the Twins as support, and Krishna as a semi-omnipotent sixth ranger. You’ve also got Draupadi playing the role of the heart. In The Journey to the West, meanwhile, we’ve got Tripitaka as the heart, Monkey as the leader, Pigsy as the lancer, Sandy as the big guy and… well, the horse is barely present so he kinda doesn’t fit–and, funnily enough, the role of smart guy is conspicuously absent, to the surprise of precisely nobody. But here’s something fun that specifically came from The Journey to the West: In Chinese mythology, there are five elements: metal (which is also wind), wood, earth, fire, and water. And these elements interact in very specific ways, each element supporting one and conquering another. Each character in The Journey to the West is specifically affiliated with an element. Sandy is metal, Pigsy is wood, Tripitaka is earth (which, funnily enough, is itself associated with the heart, fitting his party role), the dragon horse is water, and Monkey is (surprise, surprise) fire. Now these five elements (or parts of them at least) show up a lot in five man bands, but what role each element corresponds to is not static. The original Sailor Scouts are pretty much a textbook five man band, but in that case water corresponds to Mercury (who’s the smart guy) and fire goes to Mars (who’s the lancer). And in all their incarnations, the Power Rangers have generally had the red ranger be the leader, with fire as his element. The big guy is almost always earth-affiliated, but in both Journey to the West and Sailor Moon, the big guy has been metal- and wind-associated instead. The element most frequently dropped from the five-element ensemble is wood, since that leaves you with the classic four-element ensemble instead. Though that in turn is sometimes augmented with a fifth element like void, heart, light, quintessence, or some other nonsense. But the overall structure is still usually there. One of the most obvious ways to spot it is by color coordination: fire and water are always red and blue, earth is usually yellow or orange, wood is green, and metal or wind is black. (And yes, those are the colors and powers of the Voltron lions! Now you know why!) But anyway, now that we’ve officially codified our participants and gotten some sense of the influences and origins of the five individuals that make up a five man band, we’re well on our way to getting this party started. So now, what do we do with them? Well, the first thing to do is to get them all together. This might sound obvious, but it can actually be surprisingly difficult to assemble your five man band. In RPGs this is generally resolved in one of two ways: by having all the characters get contrived into the same situation (like all sharing a jail cell or getting hired for the same mission), or, alternatively, by spending the first game session getting everyone in the same place by more dynamic and story-driven means. Now the first one is easier, but unfortunately, although your gamers are likely to be willing to handwave the initial get-together and get to the fun stuff, your audience for a story is going to be rather harder to please. Now, because getting five disparate characters in the same place and at the same time (and, more laboriously, getting them actually traveling together) can be surprisingly difficult to make plausible, there are a number of literary shortcuts that people use. Number one: give them a common origin. Childhood friends, students, siblings, or some mixture of all three give your characters an easy reason to start in the same place. Frequently, either the leader-lancer-heart trifecta or the heart-big guy-smart guy trifecta will be old friends, with the other two members being plot-driven new additions. Number two: give them a common enemy. If they all hate the big bad for their own reasons, they’ll have an easy route towards teaming up. And if you want to be sneaky, you can also hide their true enemies behind plot twists and fake-outs so they don’t realize they’re all pursuing the same guy until halfway through the first arc. This one’s very plot-driven. If you’ve written a story with a singular goal (like destroy the bad guy or find the macguffin), you’re basically making it so that each character individually has that single goal too, and that’s why they hang out. It works, but it doesn’t give you a whole lot of room to play. Number three: give them interpersonal motivations. If one of the members of your five man band is sticking with another member for their own reasons, you’re already at least 40% of the way to getting everyone to stick together. Maybe the smart guy has the big guy as a bodyguard, or the lancer has an unrequited crush on the heart, or the leader saves the big guy’s life and now he owes him a life debt. Tons of possibilities, go crazy with them. Number four: give them plenty of time. Unlike in an RPG, your five man band doesn’t need to assemble over the course of a single chapter. In some anime, it can take a full *season* before your entire squad is assembled. In the meantime, you can have a lot of sub-stories that focus on the incomplete team and its growing personal dynamics. And if you want, you can exploit their natural power imbalance to throw some starter enemies at them that wouldn’t give them any trouble later on. Now most stories with a five man band use some combination of these four shortcuts. Maybe three out of five of them will be students together and the other two are childhood friends, and then they all acquire a common enemy together. Or the leader and the heart meet early on and stick together because budding romance and then gradually acquire more team members going the same way as one or both of them. Again, tons of possibilities, take your time, have fun. So once you’ve gotten your five man band assembled and secure, some interesting dynamics and plot possibilities open up. One of the major advantages of a five man band is the sheer number of character subsets you get, and the corresponding dynamics *they* can have can also be turned into stories. You get five solo arcs, ten character duos, ten trios, and five sets where one character is missing for whatever reason. Each of those ten duos will be a unique character relationship you can exploit for tension, develop in interesting or character-expanding ways, and overall play with. Each trio will have its own dynamic, but thanks to the team power balance, the trio is also liable to have some group weaknesses. Without the big guy and the heart, for example, the team will be lacking both in raw power and emotional stability. Exploit that with a suitably nasty villain and you’ve got a pretty cool substory with your hero-lancer-smart guy trio at a significant disadvantage. And similarly, with the five sets of four characters, you get to see how the group functions without one of its pillars. And even better, you get to pair it with a corresponding story about the missing character. This is really common with lancers. The lancer, due to his natural tension with the rest of the team, is the character most likely to get pissed at the group for some dumb reason and strike out on his own–sometimes to make a name for himself, but frequently to just try taking down the villain single-handedly without the others to slow him down. You get to play with his solo arc, personal problems, and inevitable crushing defeat and subsequent capture while you also get to deal with the group he leaves behind. Frequently, the leader will be grumpy about him leaving and hold an “I respect his stupid decision” attitude but the heart will manage to persuade him to go after the lancer before he does something *more* stupid. Your lancer gets to contemplate how much he could actually use the group’s help right now as he gets in way over his head while the rest of the group gets to contemplate how much they miss him as they head off after him. When they inevitably bust in with a sweet rescue mission, the lancer’s relationship with the group as a whole (along with his attitude towards having friends and stuff) will likely be majorly improved. Everybody wins! And for bonus author points, you get to shake up the status quo at the beginning of the story to keep your readers worried about the sanctity of the leader and the lancer’s uneasy friendship. But this is far from the only “one character leaves” story. And the good thing about these stories, specifically, is that they feel potentially plausible. One big thing about a five man band is that the status quo is their group dynamic. Lose a member, lose the dynamic. Some status quo shake-ups are implausible enough that your audience probably won’t believe you if you use them. For example, if your leader falls off a cliff three minutes into an episode and everybody thinks he’s dead– NOBODY watching is going to believe he’s dead. Even if he really is! But if you play it right, one of the characters leaving can be somewhat plausible to the audience, and that makes them uneasy–and that’s a good thing!– because an uneasy audience is kind of “holding their breath” until whatever makes them uneasy gets resolved. So if one of the members of your group has a potential reason to leave the group (and if you play it right) things can get seriously nerve-wracking for your audience, and that final friendship-induced resolution will be way more satisfying as a result of that concern. Now, not every departure has to be the result of a disagreement. Sometimes, what happens is that circumstances conspire to draw one of the characters away. For example, a character’s long-lost relative might appear and draw the character in with promises to be a family again. This would be a very difficult decision if that family member didn’t turn out to be evil nine times out of ten, but you get the point. If a character is tempted away from the gang by a promise of some happy future, it can be just as effective (if not more) than a story where the loner guy tries to be a loner and screws it up. Now so far I’ve only really talked about what happens when you break up the five man band. What about when it’s actually functioning as a cohesive unit? Well, then you’ve pretty much got constant opportunities to invoke one of my favorite literary devices: ACTUAL FRIENDSHIP! When you have a cohesive group as closely knit as a five man band, it’s pretty much guaranteed that these guys are going to be bros, and as a result, have really nice, heartwarming, supportive interactions. If the group’s not schisming in some way, it’s probably navigating tricky situations like a well-oiled friendship machine, or being supportive when individual members start having solo arc plot problems. The five man band is a powerful trope because, among other things, it’s interwoven with the power of friendship (which is a *juggernaut* of a trope on its own). Five man bands are held together by a lot of things: Destiny, necessity, a spaceship… But in general, the *real* thing keeping them together is some flavor of friendship– and that might be a large part of why this trope is so popular! Because in my experience, most people *like* seeing characters interacting like real human beings, especially like real human beings that like each other, have good banter, and generally care about each other’s well-being. Solo heroes and power trios are great, but everyone loves a friend group, especially if that friend group *also* happens to be saving the world. So…yeah!