Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Creating a Polarized Ensemble, Part 1: The Pros and Cons of Polarization

Recently I watched the pilot for  NBC’s new “Hunger Games” knockoff, “Revolution”.  Our heroine, “Not-Katniss”, is a bad-ass sixteen-old archer who makes daily hunting trips into the forbidden zone around her martial-law-controlled town, until the ruling militia shows up to take her sister brother.  Being the impulsive rule-breaker that she is, she instantly decides to go after them....but wait, first her doctor-stepmother and a nerdy former internet billionaire insist on coming along.  Not-Katniss indignantly demands, “Why should I bring you two along?” 

They never really explain that in the world of the show, but anyone who’s been reading my posts knows the answer: because these are three one-dimensional characters, representing head, heart and gut, who come together to form one whole person.  I’ve written seven previous posts and done a podcast about polarized ensembles (all can be found here), but my ideas have developed over time, so now I’m going to put it all together. (I apologize for repeating some info)

Once you start looking for this sort of polarized ensemble, you see it almost everywhere, even multiple trios nested within the same show:
Roughly speaking, these are some of the qualities associated with each archetype:
  • Head: “I think”, Smart, analytical, talker, scientist, professor, unemotional, critical, too focused on odds, father, Freud’s ego, stick in the mud, “This is a bad idea”
  • Heart: “I feel”, Caring, sensitive, listener, doctor, worried about human consequences, conscience, mother, Freud’s super-ego, emotional, merciful, frequently a southerner (Dr. McCoy, Kenneth on “30 Rock”, Woody on “Cheers”), “Who will get hurt?”
  • Gut (also spleen and cajones): “I want”, craving, hungry, horny, boaster, coward, self-interested, child, Freud’s id, honest, impulsive, “Wouldn’t it be fun…?”
Other important things to note about polarized ensembles:
  • Any of the three can be the lead character, as indicated by the red arrows above.
  • The best polarization is done impartially.  The point is not to prove the “gut” character wrong and the “head” character right.  They should be equally matched in their debates.
  • Polarized characters tend not to die, because they need each other.  When one of the three dies, the story feels out-of-whack.  
All of this leads us to our first big question: is this a good idea?  Aren’t 1-dimensional characters a sign that the writer has failed?  Aren’t 3-dimensional characters automatically superior?  Not necessarily.  Both options have their pros and cons:

The Cons of having a Polarized Ensemble:
  • You have to accept that your characters will be 1-dimensional, not 3-dimensional.
  • The dialogue will not be entirely naturalistic.  In real life, everyone is 3-dimensional (even if they don’t seem like it right away.)
  • If you have a multi-racial cast made up of polarized 1-dimensional characters, then there is a serious danger that the minority characters will seem to be stereotyped (or reverse stereotyped, which also seems cynical).  There are three solutions to this: you can write a polarized show with only one race (as in most of our examples), you can have a multi-racial ensemble of 3-dimensional, non-polarized characters (“The Wire”, for example), or you can risk accusation of stereotyping and do it anyway, hoping that the audience will see that your heart is in the right place (“30 Rock”, Community”)
The Pros of Having a Polarized Ensemble:
  • Sometimes 1-dimensional characters are more relatable than 3-dimensional characters.  When we watch “The Simpsons”, rather than fully identify with any one character, different parts of our personality relate to Homer, Marge, Lisa and Bart. 
  • While the resulting dialogue isn’t naturalistic, it is still, in a sense, realistic: A polarized ensemble won’t remind us of actual conversations, but it will remind us of the debate going on within our own head.  A polarized ensemble is a way to dramatize our internal debates.  This is why a 3-dimensional lead is sometimes given three 1-dimensional sidekicks to strategize with, to dramatize the debate the lead is having with his/her head, heart and gut.
  • Well-rounded characters, by definition, have no rough edges, and it’s hard to get them to spark off each other.  1-dimensional characters have more extreme views, so they create more conflict. Compare the un-polarized leads of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” with the original show. 
  • That conflict tends to develop in an impartial way.  If you’re pitting head against heart against gut, you’re not posing a no-brainer decision between “right” and “wrong” or “weak” and “strong”, you’re posing a difficult dilemma in which fundamental human impulses, each of which is universal, are pitted against each other.  A head vs. heart dilemma, for example, is not only hard to solve but hard to want to solve, which means that it is a genuine conflict, not just an obstacle.
Okay, this is already getting massive, so we’ll come back tomorrow for part two, where we’ll explore 2-way polarization and 3 types of 4-way polarization.  (I know, I know, you were told there would be math!)


sean1 said...

Great, yes great, post. Glad to have you back!

rams said...

"A polarized ensemble won’t remind us of actual conversations, but it will remind us of the debate going on within our own head." My jaw dropped. Shoot, you're smart. Should have figured that out from what you'd said before, but hadn't. Nice synthesis, mon.