Teams and teamwork aren't just buzzwords to be thrown around in meetings and by human relations departments. The Team is the core of a story, regardless of if it is a sitcom, an action movie, or the Tuesday night meeting of the Kentucky Gamer's Club. In writing, teamwork and team building are important because even if the majority of the work is not seen, the function of the team will be noted, for good or bad, by the reader, even if it is on a subconscious level. This article is going to be primarily concerned with teams and team building for fiction and literature purposes, but it can easily be adapted for gaming purposes.
1. Know the Team
There are six positions to be filled in the team roster. (more here: Five Man Band). Not all six of these positions need to be filled, and an effective team need not be constrained by this, there is no reason a team might not have more than one of a certain position. This is only really an issue when there is more than one Leader, and there is conflict over who is in charge.
The Leader - the leader quite obviously is the person in charge of the team, and it is the role of the leader to give direction, settle quarrels, mete out discipline and divide the spoils of the job well done. It is a difficult and demanding job, and the personal failures and weaknesses of the leader are going to be magnified by their position.
The Lancer - typically number two to the leader, the Lancer is potentially the strongest member of the team. This is a highly variable role, as the lancer can be a leader in training, an older mentor type, a curmudgeon, a trouble maker, or the bannerman who backs up the leader of the team. If there is a Lancer in the team, their relationship to the Leader of the team is going to be important.
The Tank - the tank is the big guy, the brute, the muscle. A simple role that is easily filled, tanks run the gamut from gentle giants to crude crushers.
The Face - the face is the position filled by the most social aspected character, and in action dramas, this role is often the token female in the all male cast. Where the Lancer and the tank favor direction action, and the brain and the leader consider plots or plans to achieve a goal, the Face knows that charm, quick wit, and the right approach can get people to open the door for you without using a battering ram, improvised explosives, or a chain and a truck.
The Brain - the smartest member of the team, the Brain has ideas, fixes things, solves puzzles and riddles, and runs as the Macgyver of the Team.
The Odd Man Out - The Odd man out, also called the 6th ranger is a volatile position in the team, often one that is not trusted, or unreliable. The odd man out can be a turncoat from the enemy side, a comedian in a serious setting, a wild card. The Odd Man out has the strategic position of being the member of the team that will move outside of the box, do the unexpected, and most likely be overlooked.
2. The Dynamics of the Team
Every team has two things that are important to be aware of, the pecking order, and specific quirks.
The pecking order is simply who is in charge and in what order. If the leader is down, or kidnapped, or on vacation in Antigua, who is in charge of the team in their absence? This is important because it shows who the rest of the team will look to for leadership, and if there is a difference in opinion over what to do, who the team will follow. If the leader and the next person in charge both agree, then the team is going to follow. There is no preset order as to what position will follow the Leader, as this decision will be based off of rank, seniority, experience, or the quality of the character's character.
Specific quirks are traits that run through a team and represent long running issues or gags within the team. These give some visible demonstration of the day to day operation of the team. It can be tempting to lay out a chart and mark out the interactions between all of the members of a team, this is really only useful if the team itself is the long term focus of a story. Most stories with a core team are going to play this out typically with a coming together of the team scene, montage, or it will be the crux of the second act, getting the team together to face the big bad.
The Leader-Lancer Dynamic
The Leader and lancer share similar roles, and there are several good leader lancer teams ups with predictable quirks. In TMNT, Raphael is the lancer to Leonardo's leader, and their relationship typically involved Leo pulling back Raph and Raph challenging Leo's cool headed leadership, and it boiled down to a hot head versus a cool head. In the various iterations of the Transformers franchise Optimus Prime often plays an inexperienced leader, coming into his own and learning what it is to be a leader (the various animated versions more than the Bay movies) and he is backed up by the much older curmudgeonly old man Ratchet. Ratchet doesn't lead, he doesn't want to, he's seen too much, and knows he can't handle it. But he knows how to pick Prime up, dust him off, and can tell him what he needs to to and will back him up. It is the dynamic between the veteran and the rookie.
The Tank and the Odd Man Dynamic
The Tank is often the stable pillar of the team, the rock around which the rest of the unit moves, and the Odd Man Out represents the most unmoored member of the team. These two positions are often at odds with each other, as they from a dynamic position, represent almost mutually exclusive stances. The relationship between B.A. Baracas and Howling Mad Murdock from the A-Team is a perfect example of this dynamic. Baracas doesn't fly, fool! and Murdock is the pilot, and where Baracas is no nonsense by the book, Murdock is clinically deranged, making up voices and personas, much to Baracas' annoyance.
The Face and the Brain Dynamic
The Face and the Brain approach their roles in manners that the other cannot comprehend or emulate, often putting these two members of the team at odds with each other. With it being common for the Face to be female, this often boils down to the Brain lacking social skills, while the Face excels at them. In the Big Bang Theory (see, sitcoms run teams as well) Sheldon Cooper is very obviously the Brain, and his interactions with Penny the Face puts them at comedic odds with each other. Sheldon's overthought socially awkward actions clash with Penny's innate and impulsive socializing and let it happen attitude.
These are just a few examples, but there is a huge amount of room for their to be positive, negative, humorous, and other interactive quirks between members of a team. The quirks don't dominate the function of the team, and the stronger the quirk is, the more likely it is going to be a point of contention for the team, often to the team's frustration. Raphael is always running off on his own, Sheldon Cooper can't let anyone sit in his spot, and the Green Ranger is always going to be the first one to fall to the lures of the other side (unless he is the last and saves the day). This is fine if the dynamic of the quirk is central to the story in some fashion, such as how Leonardo must bring Raphael back to the team, so they can fight Shredder in the final act, or Nick Fury playing the bloody cards to get the Avengers to come together to fight a common enemy.
3. Defined Roles
The above positions in the team are not their jobs, it's who they are. The tank doesn't stop being a tank when he is off the clock. A good team has clearly defined roles and their specific jobs.
Leader - a repeat, I know, and more often than not, the Leader is going to be the Leader of a team on paper, but there are a few situations where the leader is not the official leader, such as the Face being the highest ranked, and technically the leader, but in action, they take their leader from the 2nd in command, the actual leader position character.
Basic Member - Their role in the team is to do their job focus. In an action movie, these are soldiers who carry rifles. In comedies, these are non-leading support characters.
Specialist - Running with the military theme, there is the Heavy, who carries the big guns, the Medic who makes sure no one dies, the communications specialist who calls in support and does computer things as needed.
A good team has clearly defined roles and when it's time for business each member knows what they are supposed to be doing. A bad team doesn't have clearly defined roles, the members stumble over each other because they are all trying to do one thing, and often things that need to get done end up getting dropped instead.
4. Pro-Active Feedback
Communication is a vital tool for the function of a good team, and this means that much like a kitchen, all the members of the team must be actively involved in communication. This can easily be overlooked in writing, as the team members all exist in the head of the author, and have no need to physically communicate, but inside the context of th story, unless they are telepathic, or connected by a technological hive mind, there has to be communications going on between them. This needn't be verbal, many military and paramilitary units are able to function using nothing but hand signs and gestures.
The Leader, like the head chef, is the chief coordinator of the team, and while everyone has their job to do, it is the leader's job to make sure everyone is in the best place for their skills, and providing support and aid where it is needed, and when the situation arises, to step to the front and tackle the problem the team is facing head on. A silent leader is a bad leader.
The Lancer is functionally the morale officer of the team, and the lancer will often be used as a foil to the Leader, throwing out crusty foul mouthed advice, shouting the leader's commands, and so forth. This strongly depends on the nature of the Lancer within the team, but regardless, this role should be both vocal and hands on in the team. A silent Lancer is a Lancer in doubt, or one starting to break apart from the team, which would likely lead to a schism of the team itself.
The Tank is a minimal communicator, and generally follows commands, and doesn't give them. This gives the tank the advantage of gravitas when they do decide to talk. If the tank says the team can hold, it will, and likewise, when the tank says its a bad plan, it is a bad plan. Use this credit with care.
The Face is a communicator by nature, and there is not a member of a team more generally geared for constant communication, either play by play of what is going on, handling the radio or other communication devices. Faces tend to not be heavy characters, and easily gravitate towards spying, scouting, and other low profile activities, where they use their charm and such to accomplish things. While they are doing this, they might be in covert communication with the team, or will have to return to the team to divulge what they have learned.
The Brain is not the best communicator and either runs on silent, following instructions and meticulously working their gadget, trick, or other clever thing, or they babble, a constant stream of thought, evaluation, technical jargon, and so forth until another member of the team stops them, and repeats what they said in a simplistic form. Also, the Brain is the one who solves the riddles and puzzles, and will generate the answers, but it is typically up to the leader to put them into a single useful thing for the team and the mission.
The Odd Man out will typically swing towards extremes of communication, either being a constantly talking wise cracking fool, or the brooding silent loner type. Either way the Odd Man will communicate as needed, but their strength lies in non-conventional solutions, or coming up with the unexpected.
5. Acknowledgement and Reward
A basic tenet of Good Game Play applies to writing fiction and team building. If there is a member of a team with a specific mentioned skill or ability, they will need a scene or instance where this is vital to the progression of the story or the success of the mission in question, otherwise it's verbal clutter. This is the character building version of Chekov's Gun. By Chekov's Gun Theorem, if there is a gun on the mantle in the first part of a play, it needs to be pulled down and used by the last part of the play. By this if it is mentioned that the Lancer has a background in medicine and field triage, there will need to be a scene where the Lancer has to use these skills to save someone's life, otherwise the reference is wasted.
There will be members of a team who do not have one of the above defined roles, and that is perfectly fine. There are going to be situations where there are three man teams that happen to have seven or ten or twelve members. This is going to be an issue with military fiction where military units aren't built around the five man band pattern. There are two solutions for dealing with this, the Hydra/Cerberus Team Member, and the Minion.
The Hydra/Cerberus team member is a cluster of minor characters who function in the same fashion as a single listed member of the Team Pattern. The role of 'Tank' could be run by two or more physically large characters who share space for dialog. Likewise, the Brain could be several arguing scientist characters who are defined by their interaction with each other (McKay and Zalinka in Stargate: Atlantis, or the two bumbling scientists in Pacific Rim).
The minion is a non-contributing member of the team, functioning in a given role for the setting, aka a Redshirt on the away team, but not a member of the internal dynamic. Minions are just that, minions. They are written into a story as filler, to foster a sense of a larger organization, or as fodder for the monsters to kill, meatshields to protect the main characters, and so forth.
6. Celebration, Success and Bad Behavior
Teams are made of people, and as such they have to have methods for releasing pent up emotional and physical stress, be it in training, on the job, or after overcoming the tough mission. This is important because unlike a regular job where people clock in an out, the team is more than a 9 to 5, and the members of a team will become in many ways like family to one another.
Horseplay: the team members engage in pranks, stunts, and other generally obnoxious behavior.
Sports and Sparring: the team members play games, be they physical sports, computer games, oneupsmanship, contests of skill or physical sparring and mock fighting.
Partying: Drinking, dancing, consuming celebratory foods (Lookin at you, Ninja Turtles), playing music.
Involved Hobbies: Each team member will have some sort of minor hobby, and they will indulge this between missions, such as the brain building gadgets, the face charming the ladies (or the men) or the team will have a collective hobby, such as the deconstruction and rebuilding of cars in the Fast and Furious franchise.
Bad Behavior: Often a later cause of stress within a team, members can engage in negative behavior such as drinking to excess, drug abuse, dabbling with dark side powers, or other functionally criminal activities.
7. Bad Teams
All happy families are happy the same way, but no two families are the same dysfunctionally. This applies easily to teams, an effective team works the same way as all effective teams, coordinated, planned out, systematic and thorough. In another word, boring! Perfect teams don't make for interesting stories, and teams need merits and flaws just like individual characters do.
Inexperienced - the team is new, and some or all of it's members are new. This leads to issues as they have to become a team, and get over personal issues, and gain confidence not just in themselves, but in their teammates as well.
Incompetent - a member of the team is incompetent in their role and it undermines the team, forcing them to work out a non-traditional dynamic. The leader is a social promotion and doesn't know what he is doing, the brain isn't that smart, or the face is the most awkward person in the world.
Rogue Member - One of the members of the team is acting outside their role, or acting against the team. This is a common flaw when leadership is challenged, and is a major issue within a team. This can also apply to a member of the team playing for the other side, or a member who is constantly off cue, missing, or the team has to go recover constantly for whatever reason.
Ideology - The team or one or more of it's members has had a falling out with the parent organization that is behind the team, such as a the soldier losing his will to fight for a government he doesn't believe in, or the superhero who thinks that they might be fighting the wrong people. The performance of the team flags as the ideologically compromised members don't put out their full potential.
Using All of This and Why
I have been writing personally, and there have been a number of military style teams that have come through what I have written. I ran into the issue that as I was writing, these teams came up flat, disinteresting, and I found myself going back in the text because I had forgotten a member's name or what they were doing before. I had written bad teams, and even in passing I could tell these were bad teams. I am going to address this in the revision process, and this article came from the reading and research I did on the matter. It doesn't take long to chart out a team, throw a few quirks and a flaw on it, and move on. Once that little bit is cemented in writing, it will flow into your writing about the team.
Another note I would add is that while this was written from a predominantly military/action movie stance, the team is a much more common function than that. The core cast of most television shows and movies represent a team and have these function, be it the rotating members of The Walking Dead, the long fixed bridge crew of Star Trek, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or really the core cast of any drama or ensemble based show.
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? Responses (8)-7
I like it. Good, if not revolutionary, information presented in an easily digestible format. Useful to writers, useful to gamers.
This is a great summery for the writer to get there characters in order before the real writing begins. With this kind of well rounded group, it provides a way to get whatever needs doing done. It always seems it is easer to find a reason to NOT be able to do something (you cant make it too easy for our heroes) than it is to INVENT a way to do it. The Tank is much better choice than the Brain to threaten a person for information. However, the Brain might be able to give the Tank information to make the job easer.
This is also a great guide for a Game Master to guide their players into certain rolls for great gameplay. Imagine a party coming into town and none of them wanted to talk to the local people (the Face) to get information, rumors, bargain for prices, lie there way into the Dukes party, exc.
This will help me greatly! Thank you very much for this information.
I'm glad, and thank you for the solid comment
Handy, and describe most Shadowrun or Leverage groups quite well, (and supers teams to a certain extent) and can be a handy article to present to players when writing up characters to give everyone an idea of what role in the team they wish to fulfill and manage expectations.
Adding this to my Handy/Tools list.
This is one of the great ones! Good for well organized groups of players, writing, and even putting together a convention event.