Sheriff Of Nottingham Syndrome

Yesterday I was at a BBC Writersroom event for action-adventure writers, listening to Adrian Hodges speaking about the BBC’s upcoming show The Musketeers. He had a lot of interesting things to say about reinventing familiar characters, about establishing the tone and world of a story, and about creating stories from a book with surprisingly little plot.

However, the thing I found most interesting was what he called ‘Sheriff Of Nottingham Syndrome’ – the way some shows trot out their supposedly all-powerful and scary villain every week, only to have him roundly defeated by the hero yet again.

The way I see it, there’s an understandable tension here. For your major villain, you cast the best actor available. You want to use him as much as possible. He wants to actually have something to do – something interesting, inventive, something that stretches him. The audience think they want to see him as much as possible –

But the more often they see him, the less effective he is. Because every time your supposedly all-powerful and terrifying villain is defeated by the hero, he becomes less scary. Eventually he becomes a buffoon, a figure of figure who the hero runs rings around, as the Sheriff becomes in many Robin Hood stories. Now you’ve got a dissatisfied actor, a bored audience, and all you ever did was give the public what they said they wanted…

Is there an answer to this? I think it might lie in something I’ve alluded to before – one of the show rules on Leverage, which co-creator John Rogers calls “Sterling Never Loses”.

Recurring villain Jim Sterling is used sparingly, which helps avoid Sheriff Of Nottingham Syndrome – but more importantly, he’s used cleverly. Whenever he appears, he wants something specific that runs counter to what our heroes want – and he always gets it.

Our heroes don’t go to jail, and they get what they want too, or some of it – but not by defeating Sterling. Though they may start the episode in opposition to his wants and needs, they end up working alongside him, or around where he isn’t looking, not directly against him. This allows both sides to walk away with what they want, each having benefitted from the other’s involvement: honour is satisfied, and the simmering conflict between them is saved for another day.

It’s an elegant solution to a perennial problem. And not a bumbling Sheriff in sight…

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5 comments on “Sheriff Of Nottingham Syndrome

  1. Tony says:

    Yes indeed.
    My 9-year old says similar about the Daleks – recent Doctor Who has used CGI to create skyfuls of them, yet a simple inversion of the flux capacitor and they are defeated. Again.
    The only time they were scary was in an episode where there was just one against a team of soldiers. Seeing it up close – killing people for for fun – made the thing frightening.
    For the Sheriff to be frightening again he needs to go back to basics – we need to see him stab a sympathetic character or something. We need to fear him again.

  2. An interesting post, thank you! As a writer who loves good to triumph over evil it is all to easy to despatch your most hated character to some awful fate. However, in my latest WIP when I got to the very end and was weighting up options for the demise of a quite awful woman I thought ‘Well I could do this…or that…but what would happen in real life?’ And I decided to go with that real life option rather than the dramatic – and it’s worked! I’m much happier with the book and so is my editor. What suited audiences in the past, (whether you’re entertaining readers or viewers) does not necessarily work now. Everything moves on and as individuals whose job it is to entertain we have to move with it.

  3. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. The Good Wife is another series that has a character who is reprehensible but charismatic, and he never loses. Dylan Baker plays Colin Sweeney with real relish.

  4. Love this advice, Debbie. I find that a lot of TV shows set themselves up somewhat awkwardly by pitting the protagonists and villains against each other in a ‘my ultimate goal is to kill you’ way. Having conflicting goals that overlap is a clever way of creating tension and giving us characters to root for and against.

    If you can recall, what was Adrian Hodge’s advice on establishing tone and the world of a story?

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