The J.J. Abrams Guide To Storytelling: Create Revolutionary Characters


image courtesy Bjoertvedt, Creative Commons

By Kristin Nador/@KristinNador

My name is Kristin and I’m a TV addict. There, I said it. I’m not ashamed. Television was my babysitter and constant friend during my formative years. Moving often and left alone for long periods of time at a young age, it felt comforting to hear the sounds of conversation in an empty house. I wanted to be a part of the Brady family so much I would have been cousin Oliver if they’d asked me. Team Marcia btw.

I have always watched television and probably always will. To some this may seem counter-intuitive for a writer but television is my guilty pleasure and my comfort food for the brain. There’s the added benefit of learning good and bad ways of telling stories, character development, and character arc if you take the time to look for it.

Some of my favorite television shows over the last few years have had the unmistakeable fingerprints of J.J. Abrams on them. Abrams is a writer, director, and producer responsible for the movies Armageddon, Mission Impossible III and Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol, Super 8, and the recent reboot of the Star Trek series Star Trek.

Some of the television series he has been involved in on one level or another are:

  • Felicity, a coming-of-age series that laid the groundwork for many to follow
  • Alias, another television groundbreaker in filming action sequences and curiously enough, costuming with wigs
  • Lost, voted one of the top 50 best television shows of all time by Empire Magazine and is so unique as to be almost impossible to categorize
  • Fringe, a sci-fi cult favorite
  • Person of Interest, a combination police procedural, thriller and a hint of sci-fi
  • Revolution, a story set in a post-apocalyptic world after electric power is eliminated

Abrams is known for using a ‘mystery box’ technique in his screenplays. An object, or box of some type, holds mystery, many times of a supernatural or spiritual nature, holding answers to questions or the meaning of life.

Whether it’s the Rambaldi artifact in Alias, the buried hatch in Lost, the Machine in Person of Interest or the energizing pendant in the new show Revolution, there’s a mystery item(s) that the characters pursue, protect, or want to destroy. That makes for interesting plots, but Abrams and his team of writers also seem to have a knack for intriguing characters.

Felicity Porter, Sydney Bristow, Jack Shephard, Olivia Dunham, Miles Matheson or John Reese are some of the layered characters Abrams and crew created that you can connect with, root for, love, or hate.

Abrams gives us a peek into his worldview about character and the ‘mystery box’ in a TED Talk he gave in 2007. Here’s a snippet of what he had to say, using the example of the movie Jaws to illustrate:

“These are the kind of, you know, scenes that you remember, and you expect from Jaws. She’s being eaten, there’s a shark. The thing about Jaws is, it’s really about a guy who is sort of dealing with his place in the world — his masculinity, with his family, how he’s gonna, you know, make it work in this new town. This is one of my favorite scenes ever, and this is a scene that you wouldn’t necessarily think of when you think of Jaws, but it’s an amazing scene.

(scene switches to the main character of Jaws Chief Brody eating dinner with his son, head in hands, while his wife looks on — his son is mimicking his gestures as he wrings his hands, then they make faces at each other)

“C’mere,” he says, “Give us a kiss.”

“Why?”

“Cause I need it.”

C’mon. “Why, ’cause I need it?” Best scene ever, right? Come on! So you think of Jaws — so that’s the kind of stuff, the investment of character, which is the stuff that really is inside the box. You know? It’s why when people do sequels, or rip off movies of a genre, they’re ripping off the wrong thing.

You’re not supposed to rip off the shark, or the monster, you gotta rip off — you know, if you rip something off — rip off the character. Rip off the stuff that matters. I mean, look inside yourself and figure out what is inside you, because ultimately, you know the mystery box is all of us.”

See the entire TED Talk with J.J. Abrams here:

The Mystery Box: J.J. Abrams on TED.com

“The mystery box is all of us.”

If we as writers can remember this one idea, our characters will be richer for it.

Examine the characters in an Abrams production, and the ingredients for a good character would include:

1) interesting and unexpected vocation, quirks or personal interests

Abrams example: Sydney Bristow in Alias

Sydney is a young woman working for a fake spy organization while secretly spying on them for the CIA while posing as a college student. Interesting.

2) redeemable qualities

Abrams example: James “Sawyer” Ford in Lost

Sawyer is a con artist. He’s a bad dude, unlikeable, hardened by life, but does the right thing for the underdog. Miles Matheson of Revolution and John Reese of Person of Interest have this same characteristic. Realistic characters aren’t ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’ but a complex combination.

3) personal weaknesses (This can include typically good traits in large doses that make things bad for the character)

Abrams example: Lost‘s Jack Shephard

Jack’s almost obsessive need to save everyone is what makes him a hero but causes him to make dangerous decisions and have a nervous breakdown when he believes he can’t save everyone and must leave some behind.

4) overcoming obstacles with a persevering attitude

Abrams example:  Fringe‘s Olivia Dunham

Agent Dunham is stopped at every turn from finding the truth about strange happenings the Fringe Division must investigate, the mysterious Massive Dynamic Corporation as well as the experimentations she endured as a child, but she pursues the truth, even to the point of possibly having to travel to an alternate universe that she may never return from to discover it.

5) backstory that adds mystery or a reason to know why

Abrams example: Charlie Matheson, the young female protagonist in Revolution

How does Charlie’s connection to her dad, a high school algebra teacher who had something to do with the lights going out, affect what she will do when she finds out about his involvement?

6) sprinkling backstory judiciously through the story

Abrams et al are expert at the intricate backstory. If you watch one of these series and follow the backstories you’ll see what I mean. They peel the layers of the backstory onion off in just the right amounts to make you hungry to know more and find out how those backstory elements affect the characters and the present-day storyline and connect them all together.

A well-constructed plot is important, but readers also need to connect to and be intrigued by the characters that populate them to hang on until the end of the story.

You can learn a lot about creating memorable characters by examining what makes the characters you enjoy so memorable.

Want to learn more about writing multi-dimensional characters? Check out these great links:

Question: What television show do you think did/does a good job of showing the psychological motivations and emotional layers of its characters?

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9 thoughts on “The J.J. Abrams Guide To Storytelling: Create Revolutionary Characters

  1. Abrams is a genius at many things and I admire his work too. I love back story too and use it often in my writing as well as making some of the more unsavory or least favorite characters play a pivotal role in an unexpected way. Great post. I’ll keep and share this one.

    Like

    • Backstory is like the secret spice rub of a story. Use it in the right percentage, let it soak up the different ‘flavors’ at the right time in ‘cooking’ your story, and the result is a tale of tasty proportions. Improper usage results in globs of info-dumps revealed at the wrong time and a bad taste in your mouth as a reader/viewer.
      Glad you enjoyed the post, Joe. 🙂

      Like

  2. Wow, great analysis. I’m not a big TV watcher (would you believe out of all those mentions, Brady Bunch and latest Star Trek movie are the only ones I’ve seen?!) but I would toss out Battlestar Galactica (2004 version) for its complex characters. I’d say the whole series is about moral shades of gray, and in the entire enormous cast of characters, it’s hard to think of any who didn’t fall somewhere on a sliding scale of hero and villain (with Helo and Cavil best representing the extremes, IMO).

    Like

    • I didn’t watch but a few episodes of the new BG when it came out to give an opinion (old enough to have seen the original), but it may be worth another go on Netflix or Amazon. The more I’ve been learning with my writing the more it seems to have made me a movie/tv show dissection addict.

      Like

  3. Pingback: Monday Mentions: Author Hate, Furry Love & Thanks « Amy Shojai's Blog

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