The Breakfast Club is a cult classic, teen movie from the 1980s and created the blueprint for many films to follow. If you
haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch, but it’s probably best if you see it aged 15 and in the midst of your own teen angst. As a writer, The Breakfast Club offers a simple formula for an ensemble cast.
The basic premise of The Breakfast Club is, it’s a Saturday and five students are stuck in the school library for the day, on detention for various indiscretions. The characters each fall into self-appointed stereotypes; the criminal, the princess, an athlete, the brain and the basketcase. The criminal is in conflict with everyone because he’s the rebel and anti-establishment figure, but he’s most in conflict with the princess. She’s pretty, privileged and in a position of power – that’s everything the criminal doesn’t have. And of course, this conflict provides the perfect tension for a love hate relationship – think Leia and Han.
The athlete is the middle ground, the every guy and forms a bridge between the central princess/criminal conflict and the complete outsiders, the brain and the basketcase. Every ensemble cast has the outsider who is an unknown quantity. In the Breakfast Club, the basketcase is played by Ally Sheedy, who barely speaks, but is a kleptomaniac, which works brings the focus on her. She acts to unite the rest of the ensemble, who all take exception to her stealing their stuff. Looking at The Avengers film, The Hulk steps into the basketcase role. As Banner, he’s the awkward outsider and as The Hulk he’s out of control and a liability.
Looking at The Avengers film, The Hulk steps into the basketcase role
And finally, the brain. In the beginning, nobody pays him the time of day. He’s just a nerd who gets on everyone’s nerves and has trouble speaking in a language anyone understands. In the final act, he’s often the key to the solution and holds the team together. Hermione falls into this role, in Harry Potter, as does Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Note that the brain often acts as the comic relief.
The recent teen TV drama, The 100 is a textbook example of The Breakfast Club blueprint. Clarke, the main character, is the princess. In fact, the criminal, Bellamy, even calls her princess and their relationship is the central source of conflict, at least for the first half of season one. Finn started as a bit of a rebel, but has become the love interest and every guy (albeit, the every guy with an air of Johnny Depp), with Jasper as the incapable nerd, who finds his inner strength as the show goes on.
The benefits of using the formula are, that you know it works and the audience is on familiar ground, making it easier for them to follow you into the story. However, the danger is that you become too derivative. By using stereotypes, you can quickly fall into cliches and become a parody. So how do you avoid the pitfalls?
The best way to harness the power of The Breakfast Club blueprint without being predictable, is by playing with the stereotypes. In Buffy, the criminal is the rebel slayer, Faith, flipping the gender expectations for this role. Try this with the other characters too. You could also play with the key traits of your characters. Maybe the princess isn’t a shallow snob, maybe he feels guilty about his privileged upbringing and that drives his behaviour. Maybe the basketcase isn’t shy and awkward – think of another way someone can be an eccentric outsider. Remember that characters don’t have to fit neatly into these boxes. Mix different elements to see what happens if the princess is also the brain or the rebel. Have fun and mix it up.
It’s no coincidence that I’ve mentioned several Joss Whedon works (Buffy and The Avengers), because he is the master of the ensemble cast. You can also add Toy Story, Firefly and Dollhouse to your list of things to watch to see Whedon use and manipulate The Breakfast Club formula to make different stories work. And when it comes to subverting expectations, can I just say, blonde cheerleader revealed as killer of vampires. Nuff said. Go forth and subvert.