“Okay, so…wait a minute,” I can hear you saying right now. “You’re posting a blog during NaNoWriMo, Angel. That means National NOVEL Writing Month, not National TV Script Writing Month!”
Well, I have a little tidbit of news for y’all.
That black box in your living room? It may stay black most of the time in YOUR household and even in mine, but in most homes across our great land, that black box is your novel’s biggest competition.
Today, I’m going to talk about how it can also be your greatest friend and best advisor—especially when it comes to dissecting the art of incredible character creation.
You see, a revolution has taken place over the last 10 to 15 years. Some of the best actors, directors and WRITERS have actually turned and CHOSEN the world of television as their preferred medium. This post isn’t about all those reasons why, so I won’t get into them. I’m only here to help celebrate them. For the purposes of my piece, I’m only going to choose three of the biggest. And believe me when I say that if I selected all of just MY favorites, this blog post would be a mini novel of its own!
So let’s get down to what you came here for: the meat and potatoes of this thing. Dig in, kids, because I know I plan on gorging on the goodness…
Best known for: Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder
The queen of TV’s current nighttime drama leaderboard creates characters that drop our jaws every week, and for damn good reason. Number one, they are messy. Every single of one of them has a past filled with heartaches, joys, secrets, and sins. They are beyond real, bigger than life, with storylines that grip us and move us in the same ways. This means that sometimes, they aren’t loveable. Sometimes, they aren’t even likable! But they crawl beneath our skin with their troubles and conflicts, and don’t let go.
Secondly, they are given creative quirks. Wait a second…no. They are given QUIRKS, all caps. This is where. IMHO, Ms. Rhimes shows her second-to-greatest strength. (I’ll detail her first in just a second.) Examples: Scandal’s Olivia Pope believes so strongly in being the one in the white hat that she keeps a white hat, in pristine condition, in a box to remind her of that fact. On the same show, First Lady Mellie Grant goes off the deep end in mourning the loss of her son—to the point that she walks around the White House in a robe and Ugg boots all day, munching on potato chips and washing them down with beer. You get the picture. Pick a trait and go for it. If you think the idea’s too wild, you’ve hit character pay dirt.
And now, the single-handed best thing Rhimes does for her characters: the words she gives them to speak. Some snarks have actually given this gift a name, calling it “Shonda Speak” and accusing every character of having the same dialogue cadence—but I strongly beg to differ. The dialogue in every one of Rhimes shows is so mind-blowingly amazing that if you’ve ever watched one, I’m sure you’ve hit at least one moment where you paused the playback to yell “I wish I’D written that!” Again, this isn’t easy stuff. This is about reaching for that perfect character-specific metaphor, finding the ideal kernel for the pivotal moment in your prose, and reaching for the words that will perfectly encompass what you have to say. Specific example? On an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, Doc Bailey doesn’t just say, “Sorry, I’m having a bad day.” Rhimes’ take on this moment? “Sorry; I’m busy holding myself together with tape and glue.” In TEN WORDS, you now have the breadth and scope of just how crappy her day really is…right?
Best known for: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Before anyone takes up pitchforks, let me acknowledge that I know all about Mr. Whedon’s film writing credits, too. Having worshipped at the man’s feet since Sarah Michelle Gellar slayed her first vampire, there isn’t a lot I don’t know about this man’s incredible writing.
Whedon is known—and alternately loved and hated—by those of us in his fandom by creating heart-wrenching tragedy in its highest form. You’re helpless to do anything but fall in love with his characters, who are all based on romantic (perhaps even Arthurian) ideals, with the full knowledge that in the next episode you watch, that character could be staked, burned, sacrificed or offed in some crazy manner. And yeah, you’ll come back to watch even more, craving the tears and the heartbreak even more.
Hands down, Whedon is my go-to god when it comes to basing characters on beloved romantic tropes. The man actually calls himself a “hopeless and devout romantic,” which has shocked many, considering his greatest claims to fame is the creation of vampires, space scavengers, and super hero watchers—and then twisting their stories in beyond-insane ways. But take a deeper look and you soon see that all of these people are a romantic ideal in deeper, more complex skin (again, focusing ONLY on his TV people for the sake of trying to keep this brief!):
Oz (Buffy): Clark Kent geek in the form of the cutest ginger werewolf you’ll ever meet. And played by Seth Green with adorable perfection.
Wesley Pryce (Buffy and Angel): The messy, complex, layer-deep, utterly incredible anti-hero. John McClain and Han Solo have nothing on this guy.
Buffy Summers (Buffy): The warrioress in cheerleader’s clothing. Nobody—NOBODY—does bad-ass leading lady like Buffy. (She was one of the main inspirations for Sage Weston-Hawkins from my W.I.L.D. Boys of Special Forces books.)
Cordelia Chase: (Buffy and Angel): Bad girl makes good in the most stunning way possible: she becomes a damn angel. With great hair and shoes. Yesssssss. (Luna Lawrence from the W.I.L.D. Boys? Yep…inspired by this awesome Whedon character.)
Spike (Buffy and Angel) Bad boy gorgeous meets tormented bearer of unrequited love. GAH! Even when actor James Marsters returned to be the baddie on Witches of East End, I kept calling him Spike.
Mal: (Firefly): Noble alpha bad-ass goodness at its finest. I love Nathan Fillion as Castle but I LOVE HIM as Mal.
Best known for: Felicity, Alias, Lost, Alcatraz, Fringe, Almost Human, Revolution, Believe, Person of Interest
Okay, technically, Abrams isn’t a writer. He produces and develops shows. But he is definitely one of the most hands-on producers out there, and his hand in creating some of the most beloved TV characters of our time is definitely indelible—as well as unforgettable.
The key to Abrams’ golden touch? Taking ordinary people—and putting them into extraordinary circumstances. While the premises for his shows may seem plot-heavy and story-driven, the reason his fans return is the human element…the depth, heart, courage, and nobility of the CHARACTERS.
Like Whedon, Abrams loves to present stories with strong female characters. We’ve already touched on Buffy Summers, the ass-kicking vampire slayer from Whedon’s worlds. Ten years, a leather skirt and a few hot wigs later, Buffy became Sydney Bristow, the first super-secret spygirl to give us girl boners since Emma Peele. When you create a formidable female character, whether she’s a supporting player or the main attraction, it forces the men in your story to become stronger, too. It’s a win-win for character development.
Abrams’ story people are also created with gutsy, outside-the-box back stories. One only has to view a couple of seasons of Lost to know this, but I’d be willing to bet it’s a required tenet for all his writers to know their characters from birth to present day before they’re given a word of dialogue to speak. Because of the time and effort given to this depth, we care enough about these characters to follow them into even the most fantastical situations—including everything from being stranded on an island that may or may not be real, to a Dystopian Earth with its own set of interesting challenges.
And before we break to commercial…
If you were to speak to any or all three of these incredible entertainment talents, I bet they would agree on one tenet of creating unforgettable characters. STRETCH YOURSELF. Reach as deep inside as you can, as high above as you can, as far into the universe as you can to breathe depth, uniqueness, quirks, and back stories unique to YOUR special story people. And the next time you want to watch a little TV? Go ahead—and be sure to take notes. The things you learn may help unlock the special traits of your next amazing hero and heroine.
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