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.”
“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 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:
- Han Solo, Scarlett O’Hara, and Your Characters: What Makes Them Compelling? guest post from K.M. Weiland at The Write Practice
- Great Characters – The Beating Heart of Great Fiction over at Kristen Lamb’s blog
- Making an Emotional Connection by Joe Moore at The Kill Zone
- The Character Traits Thesaurus at The Bookshelf Muse
- Developing Characters (20+ curated posts!) from Janice Hardy at The Other Side of the Story
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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