Let’s Talk About Characters

Have you ever stopped and asked yourself why you watch the shows you watch?

You might say because:

  • the story is awesome (engaging concept)
  • it’s funny (comedy)
  • I like Natalie Dormer! (actor/actress draw)
  • Titus Andromedon is the best! (character draw)
  • “Game of Thrones” kills my soul (emotional attachment)

These are all valid. And they are all connected by the most important reason you watch a show: The characters.

You know that the characters are important. And you might still believe that the reason you stick with a show is because of the plot. But what you might fail to realize is that the plot/story stems from character. You stick with shows to see how this week’s story effects the characters.

I used to think that I watched shows because of the concept and plot, but I was reading a book called “Inside the Room” that was written by several professors that teach scriptwriting at UCLA, and one said that we watch a show because of character. I’ve been thinking about that for a couple of weeks now and have found that to be true.

Think about your favorite show. What drew you to the show in the first place? What kept you watching? What emotions has this show made you feel, and why? Are all of your answers somehow connected to your favorite character?

I’ve been consuming a lot of television over the past couple of weeks and with the idea of characters in mind, I starting noticing just how much character really impacts my viewing habits.

In the past month I have watched, “Elementary,” “Da Vinci’s Demons,” “Daredevil,” “Teen Wolf,” and three episodes of “Sense8.”

Wait a minute, three episodes of “Sense8?” Yes. Only three.

I have a short attention span. I get bored easily with things. I only made it through three episodes of the series because, 1) they spent three episodes in a state of “I have this power” but nothing really happened to them to move things forward (until the last couple of minutes after each episode, I almost stopped after the pilot, but the last two minutes were exciting), and 2) I didn’t care much for the characters.

See, character. Though the concept of the show was interesting and got me to watch, that alone could not hook me. The magical formula is concept + character. And it just didn’t get me.

You may also be looking at the shows above going, “‘Teen Wolf’ seems an odd show to be on your list.” And it is. I see things in a teen/high school genre as being angsty and, well, teenager.

I started watching the show because I met two of the actors at a convention (Dylan Sprayberry and Cody Saintgnue) and I had never seen anything that they had been in. We interviewed them. They were really great guys so I picked up season 1 of the show (they don’t show up until season 4).

It was a teenager/high school drama with werewolves, but the characters were interesting and engaging. You care about them. What’s going to happen to Scott McCall next week? What’s going to happen to the relationship between closeted werewolf Scott and daughter of the werewolf hunter Allison? You care about the characters so you want to know what is going to happen next. How will the story effect these people?

I started watching to see the acting ability of Dylan and Cody, and only made it far enough into the series to see them because I was hooked to the show by the characters that came before.

Side note: The character development and growth in this show is really great. If you have seen “Teen Wolf”, look at season 1 Lydia compared to season 5 (she goes from being an uppity bitch to a badass).

Characters that are engaging and endearing are what make or break a show (or movie). Complex characters make for interesting characters and gives you room to inject drama into your story.

Complex characters like Oliver Queen on “Arrow”. It is a lot easier to infuse drama into the story of a tortured character, but it’s a good example of complexity.

Oliver spends five years “on an island” and returns a completely changed person. Now, he has a list of people who have ultimately led Starling City on a path to ruin. Oliver dons the hood to rid the city of these people. His complexity comes in the idea the he alone can protect the city. Emphasis on alone. It is his mission. His job. But then John Diggle appears. And then Felicity Smoak. And Roy Harper. And Laurel Lance. He feels that he ends to do all of this alone because he doesn’t want anyone else to shoulder this burden. But as each season progresses, this idea is broken down as they help him succeed, but then reaffirmed when someone gets hurt. That small idea, that complexity, brings so much into the show. It’s the details that matter.

Probably the greatest of all character-driven shows was “Lost.” This show was, and still is, one of the most frustrating shows on television. The story got confusing and weird and for most of seasons 4-6, you felt like you were just being dragged along. But why keep watching?

The characters.

And there were a lot of them.

Viewers stay for their favorite characters.

Think of Dexter. He’s a serial killer. But why do we care and watch?

“He goes after criminals.” Okay.

“He has a code.” Okay.

“He is great with kids.” Interesting.

That added depth is what makes a blood analyst serial killer relatable and likable.

So you might be thinking, “All of these show are dramas. Seems like it’s easier to add complex characters to a drama. What about comedies?”

“Parks and Recreation” is a good example. Leslie Knope is career-driven. She will do everything she can to do her job, not just well, but to perfect. She is a perfectionist who is in a department that 1) nobody really cares about and 2) has employees that aren’t fully committed. Comedy draws their complexity through several characters. Leslie is completely devoted to the parks department but her boss, Ron Swanson, hates government. So the complexity comes through their interactions and Leslie trying to build a park.

In the case of most comedies, it’s the whole cast of characters that makes the complexity and keeps you engaged.

At least that is what I have observed.

So if you want to get into the business and write the next blockbuster or most-talked about TV show, here is something to consider.

Take the time to develop your characters. Make them relatable and complex. Make them human. Your story comes out of your characters. If you try and infuse your characters into a story and not let them breathe, then your characters will always be flat. Make sure you adapt to your characters and really put yourself in their shows. Give your characters their own voice.

And the next time you are watching a show and find yourself totally in love with it, or want to stop watching, ask yourself why. I bet that your answer will have something to do with character.

-Alyssa

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