Most action heroes work freelance. Some of them have teams, and sometimes the team itself is the hero–an ensemble cast. Generally, though, fiction tends to concentrate on individuals and small groups.
There are exceptions. Stephen King comes to mind–in novels like Needful Things he works on a very large canvas and uses the entire town as an ensemble cast.
It is rare, however, for a writer of fiction to spend much time and effort portraying a large organization. However, for most of us large organizations are an important part of our lives. We work for big companies, we attend hobbyist groups and conventions, we are members of denominations. It is difficult to find someone (even a self-described misanthrope such as myself) who has not, at one time or another, been part of a large group.
I have been thinking about this lately because my next book, The Worms Of Heaven, is going to largely concerned with the internal workings and politics of Agony’s corporate empire, Delapour & Associates. I am beginning to get a feel that the company as a whole will be a character, much in the same way that Stephen King’s fictional towns of ‘salem’s Lot and Castle Rock are characters in his novels.
The Harry Potter novels, of course, take place largely in Hogwarts School For Witchcraft And Wizardry. Despite that, I never had any real feel for the school as a whole (the movies do a better job, mostly from being able to show long shots full of extras in robes.)
Part of the reason is the whole House structure, which other people have also mentioned. Hogwarts has The Hero House, The Villain House, The Sidekick House, and The Comic Relief House. (Yes, fans of the books can and do point out that there are exceptions, but in general characters in the Harry Potter world are sorted into house by narrative function. The scene in the last film where the entire Slytherin house votes as one to turn over Harry to Whats-His-Name comes to mind.)
That’s just doesn’t strike me as realistic. Even granting that The Sorting Hat has precognitive abilities and sorts students on the basis of how they will turn out at the end of the series, there are always unofficial cliques and factions within the official divisions of an organization. There would be Sytherins who would support Harry just because they want to oppose Draco’s clique. There would be children of Death Eaters who would join Dumbledore’s Army just because it would piss off their parents. (Sure, we’ve got Sirius Black, but there would be a lot more of that.)
Then there’s the whole Everything That Happens At Hogwarts Is All About Harry thing. Yes, I realize that he is the hero of the series, and his name is on the cover of all of the books, but the focus of the books didn’t leave much room for the rest of the school. I don’t even have a good feel for how big the student body is. (Again, the movies give a better idea of that.) How many students are in an average Hogwarts graduating class? How many are in an average lecture class? An average lab class? How evenly are they distributed in Houses? For that matter, how many instructors are at Hogwarts?
Now, before I get flamed for dumping on what is, admittedly, one of the most popular series in recent letters, let me state clearly that I am not saying that the Harry Potter books are bad, or that I think I could do better. What I am saying is that I don’t believe that Rowling developed Hogwarts as an organization as realistically as she could have. Granted, the whole idea of a Wizard school as a setting is pretty far out there, so she can be forgiven for concentrating on the magical aspects rather than worrying about seating schedules for meals in the great hall.
Still, I find myself wondering about the mechanics of the school (and you’ve got one janitor and one groundskeeper? Even with magic that seems like poor staffing.) Too many elements seem to show up just long enough to have some kind of impact on Harry’s life and are never mentioned again. In Goblet Of Fire we suddenly find out that there are at least two other schools of magic, which then vanish from the scene as abruptly as they appeared. There is no interaction with the other schools except once every five hundred years? No guest lecturers? No inter-library loans? As far as I can recall, none of the instructors ever mention teaching at another school. Do students ever transfer?
My point is that writing organizations is tough. There are huge amounts of backstory and large numbers of characters, many of whom the main characters will know by face and name. There are individual cliques and unofficial lines of communication, traditions that have no clear antecedents beyond “we’ve always done it this way”.
It’s a challenge, and I am beginning to see just how challenging it is as I make notes for WOH. Still, I am enjoying the process so far, and I think that my next book will be stronger for it.