Thursday, April 19, 2012

How to Create a TV Show, Part 12: Polarize Your Ensemble

We’ve talked about how to create individual TV characters, but how do you create an ensemble?  As with movies, you should either have one hero, or multiple heroes that actually represent one mind that has been split into two or three extremes.

As I talked about here and here, TV characters are often more extreme than characters in real life, but this doesn’t mean that the writing is bad: Some writing attempts to recreate believable interpersonal dialogue, but it’s equally valid to dramatize the internal debate we have in our own heads, by having different characters represent different extremes.

Some shows tri-polarize their characters: one is all head, one is all heart and one is all gut (aka ego, super-ego, and id, Freud’s definition of the warring factions in our heads). (I bolded the names of the lead “heroes” in order to point out that shows can favor different poles.  Only “Avatar” seemed to me to be truly co-equal, and “Lost” really didn’t have any heroes by the end, did it?)

On other shows, we end up with a bi-polar split.  Two extreme characters who each lack what the other has in spades:

There’s nothing more dreadful or generic than a non-polarized ensemble.  Because I’m developing a show with some similarities, I recently watched the short-lived “Law and Order” spin-off “Conviction”, about seven attractive young ADAs who juggled cases with their love lives.

Each episode had three or four cases being tried, but ultimately it didn’t matter who was trying each case, since the characters were essentially interchangeable (aside from who they were sleeping with).  Instead of asking, “how would this prosecutor handle this case?”, they just asked, “How would a prosecutor handle this case?” and then picked a character at random  That’s not drama!  Drama requires a volatile reaction between character and circumstance! 


j.s. said...

There's really something magical about this kind of extreme polarization if you do it well, if you really make it idiosyncratic and personal to the characters instead of schematically mapped to an abstract worldview -- and, of course, if you have a little help from some great actors. I'm a big fan of the polarized pair from BOSTON LEGAL: Alan Shore, the younger, more thoughtful and empathetic liberal vs. Denny Crane the older, more selfish and instinctive conservative. On paper the pair ought to be cartoonish and the outcome of each of their clashes should be easy to predict. But it wasn't and part of what made it work was that they valued their friendship more than any legal or philosophical disputes.

Beth said...

Thanks for redefining this as Head/Heart/Gut. Freud's terms never really made sense to me.

Beth said...
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Bill Peschel said...

This sounds like one way to approach it. It seems that, if the lead character operates on his gut, you set up a dynamic between the logic/passion poles, giving the hero the freedom to make the most effective narrative choice.