Monday, April 25, 2011

How to Create a Compelling Character, Step 7: Let Them Lay Down The Law

Every year there are lots of TV pilots about rookie cops, medical interns, and young crusaders just out of law school, but these shows almost always flop. Why? It’s because these characters are very hard to write. In the end, a hero needs decision-making power, which is one thing rookies don’t have.

This is somewhat counter-intuitive. Everybody loves an underdog, right? And if the heroes are just learning the ropes, the audience is right there with them, learning everything by their side, so that’s a great way into the story, isn’t it? Yes, following rookies through their day is a great way into a new show, but you very quickly get into trouble...

A classic example is “The West Wing”. When Aaron Sorkin conceived and pitched the show, he imagined that it would feature only the President’s staff, but we would never see the big man himself. So he wrote the pilot, in which the staff vigorously debate back and forth about how they should advise the President on a difficult decision, and that worked well enough for most of the episode…

…But then Sorkin got to the end of the story. He suddenly realized that it would be enormously unsatisfying to end the pilot (and the next hundred episodes) with his heroes sending their advice up the chain of command and then powerlessly waiting to see what the outcome would be. Suddenly, in the very last scene, the President walks into the room after all, and lays down the law. This show needed a decider. Before long, it became exactly the opposite of what Sorkin wanted it to be: a show that centered around the President as main character.

And indeed every show tends to trend in this direction: away from the flunkies and toward the bosses. The “30 Rock” pilot was about Liz and Pete with Jack as a mere antagonist. Now Jack is Liz’s beloved co-star, and Pete is little-seen. Stories are about the consequences of decisions, so it’s much easier to write stories about people who actually have decision-making power. There’s a reason why most heroes, even if they’re children, are orphans. They need the ability to commit fully to whatever they decide to do, without anybody swooping in to protect them from danger. They need to be on the hook for the consequences of their actions.
Maybe the smartest pilot of all was “CSI”. We followed a rookie who had just joined the CSI squad as she (and we) learned all about what they did. At the end of her first day, she took her newfound knowledge and went out to her first crime scene, where she promptly got shot and killed. She was a great POV character, but now we needed to put ourselves in the hands of the power-players.


Anonymous said...

I would think that this also goes for upstarts like Jack Bauer, who makes decisions despite the fact that he's not the boss, and then deals with the consequences when they come.

Matt Bird said...

Good example: 24 fans always rolled their eyes when Jack discovered "there's a mole inside CTU!" This was a line that was uttered at least once every single year, but that was the writers' way of "taking away the safe space". Whenever they got tired of having him deal with the chain for command, they had him go rogue and be his own boss for several weeks.