Stand Back, I’m The Hero! or Three Rules For Television Characters

The central characters in television shows are the hardest characters to write. They’ve got to have enough depth to sustain an audience’s interest for multiple episodes, potentially for years, and yet be strong and eye-catching enough to create immediate empathy.

So here are three things to bear in mind when creating your TV hero.

–  Always keep your main character active.  They must be the ones driving the plot, making the discoveries, saving the day and learning the lessons. Just like the hero of a film, they need to lead the story, not follow orders or contribute from a desk somewhere away from the action.

This means that, if they work for someone else, they need to have a high degree of freedom to act, or be a maverick who disobeys orders and does as they please.  You’d think it would be wiser to make them top dog, so they have the freedom to take action –  but actually, that can be a really bad idea. A character who can do whatever they like without reprimand faces no significant forces of conflict – and there have to be obstacles of some kind if the audience is to stay interested.

In order to be active, your character often needs to have a dog in the race: personal stakes. If they don’t solve the case/steal the money/find out who they drunk texted last night, they will suffer in some way.

A character who’s simply waiting for something to happen, or who has nothing at stake in what’s happening around him, is passive, and we have nothing to root for.  The stronger your character’s motivation for getting involved in the action of the series, the better.

– Always keep your main character hungry for something.  It might be financial success, career progression, the perfect relationship, but there’s a hole of some kind in this character’s life and they’re taking action to fill that hole.

We suggested just now that a character waiting for something to happen is uninteresting –  but even worse is a character who knows what they want but takes no action to achieve it.  Someone waiting for a fortune to drop into their lap is a worthless dreamer – if they can’t be bothered to make any effort, why should we bother to watch?  But someone like Del Boy Trotter, who works and schemes every day to realise his doomed dream of becoming a millionaire, immediately elicits our sympathy.

– Always keep your main character slightly off-balance or slightly out of their depth.  A character totally at ease with his life and the situations he finds himself in feels no challenges, has to make no effort.  But the expert detective who’s working the one case he can’t crack, or the lothario who finds the one girl who won’t fall into his arms –  they’re characters who are going to have to make an effort, to expose their weakness and become vulnerable.  And vulnerable is always interesting. (Look at how Carrie’s vulnerability drives Homeland, for example.)

Often, the vulnerability is written into the concept of the series, confronting a confident character with the one person or situation they find most difficult.  Think about all those shows about people forced to work with their former wife or husband.  Having to work with someone who knows them so intimately exposes their inner character as no other working partner could.

Then there’s the “fish out of water” show;  Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Someone perfectly adapted to one situation or community is suddenly dumped into the exact opposite, forcing them to be resourceful and change in response to these new challenges. What these concepts are doing is keeping their central character off balance, forcing them to chase equilibrium (keeping them active) and to expose their vulnerability.

Active, Hungry, Vulnerable. Three traits for great characters.

Things I Learned From… Homeland

As season one of Homeland draws towards it’s thrilling conclusion, I’ve been thinking a lot about ambiguity in drama.

So much of the appeal of Homeland has been the level of uncertainty about the motives and trustworthiness of both the central characters. Carrie is psychologically unstable, impulsive, and so driven that it compromises her career. Brody may be a traitor, but in some ways that’s the least of his problems: he’s traumatised by his experiences, confused about his place in the world, and being manipulated by most of the people around him. They’re both deeply ambiguous characters – but what is ambiguity?

Paul Ashton, from the BBC’s writersroom, says that ambiguity isn’t when we don’t know what’s going on. Neither is it when there are several contradictory answers to a question. Both these situations are confusing and alienating for the viewer. Rather, ambiguity is when there are two (or potentially, more than two) answers, both of which are equally supported by the evidence.

At the end of Inception, is Cobb in a dream world, or the real world?  Both answers are equally possible, within the evidence we’ve been given. In early episodes of Homeland, the evidence pointed equally to Brody being  a traitor, or an innocent man struggling with traumatic experiences. Is Carrie correct about him, or dangerously off her medication?  Again, both options seem equally possible.

So how are the writers managing this level of ambiguity so effectively?  Several clever techniques:

They’ve made us question what is real. Brody’s memory and psychological state are fragile, and Carrie’s on medication – indeed, her behaviour in the first episode is reckless and self-destructive. Neither of these people can be entirely trusted, even when they believe themselves to be telling the truth.

They’ve set the story in a world where anything is possible. The world of the spy – at least in fiction – is a world of shifting boundaries. A country that was an enemy yesterday is an ally today, and a threat again tomorrow. A deadly enemy agent, once turned, can be your most valuable asset. Against this background, every character is suspect and loyalties can change at any time. That’s the value of genre to the writer – among other things, it can create an atmosphere that supports ambiguity.

The two ambiguities reinforce one another. If Carrie’s sane, Brody is a traitor. If Brody’s a genuine hero, then Carrie is deluded. Or so it appears. In fact, it’s logically possible  that Brody’s a traitor and Carrie’s deluded, but that’s not an option we’re ever presented with.  The argument is always framed as an either/or situation.  So every piece of evidence for or against one character simply increases the ambiguity about the other.

Finally, they’ve kept us off-balance with a series of small goals. Follow the money trail; find the terrorist contact; turn the diplomat funding the operation. Each of those twists and turns appears to push the plot towards one answer or the other, before restoring it to the state of ambiguity.  Crucially, none of these goals actually impact on the big question directly. Preventing the terrorist attack won’t prove whether Brody is a traitor or not. It certainly doesn’t impact on Carrie’s fitness to do her job. And it shouldn’t. Providing hard evidence one way or the other every week would feel contrived and ridiculous; instead, the writers shift the general tone of the episodes towards the positive or the negative, giving the illusion of leaning in one direction or the other without actually altering the central ambiguity.