In the previous post I agreed with an observation by Rust Hills that series television in the 1970’s (and earlier) leaned heavily on static leading characters. More often than not, the series lead was the same paternalistic hero made famous in film by actors like John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. From a narrative point of view this was not without benefits: the audience developed familiarity with the main characters and knew what to expect each week, in the same way you know what you’re going to get when you eat at a fast-food restaurant.
A show like the long-running and wildly popular Gunsmoke (1955-1975) is an iconic example of this storytelling style. Even a fantastic, medium-altering show like the original Star Trek (1966-1969) followed the same tried-and-true formula. No matter what happened the week before — no matter how close to death the cast came, and no matter how many people died along the way — everything was hunky-dory the following week.
Presenting series regulars as fixed characters had two additional advantages. First, there was no need to waste precious air time preparing for change because the regular characters weren’t going to change. They might squeal or grimace each week, but by the next episode they were ready for another go, none the worse for the wear. Second, every drama could be explored through conveniently disposable guest stars, meaning there would be no need to clean up after them or carry any dramatic impact forward. Each new episode was a familiar and clean (if not sterile) slate.
The downside, as Hills pointed out, is that change is the essence of drama. By splitting the impetus and effect of dramatic change between the regulars and guest stars respectively, television dramas inherently muted the potential of the stories they had to tell. It was safe, it was familiar, it was predictable, and the net result was absurd. How many gunfights did Sheriff Matt Dillon have in Gunsmoke? How many crew members did Captain Kirk lose over the course of his five year journey? Did these cumulative body counts weigh on either character week after week, or on other characters?
To be sure there were always attempts to expand the television norm. Writers wanted to do more, actors wanted to do more, but television was a corporate medium first. Brand identification, both in the star power of the actors playing the series leads and in the audience’s familiarity with the weekly narrative was rigorously maintained because it worked. It delivered an audience to advertisers each week, and that audience was never disappointed. Bored, perhaps, but if a viewer wanted more they could always turn off the tube and read a book.
The TV Series Grows Up
If there was a watershed moment when American network television changed it was probably the debut of Hill Street Blues (1981-1987). Heavily promoted by the network and eagerly anticipated by critics, the show announced its determination to do things differently by gunning down two of the series leads at the end of the first episode – a clear and premeditated violation of the normal contract between series and audience. Wildly celebrated by critics despite early dismal ratings, the show went on to break a number of television taboos and cultural restrictions, and in so doing brought the modern ensemble drama to mainstream TV.
Shows such as ER and The West Wing and even The Wire owe more than a simple debt of gratitude to Hill Street, because it redefined the modern series drama as one in which the main characters do change over time. Yes, there are still guest stars and sub-plots, but it’s the main characters and their capacity for emotional evolution that differentiates them from the brand-driven series’ of the past. In the modern series the main characters don’t simply have a backstory, they also have narrative continuity and a destiny that must be prepared for in the way that all character movement must be prepared for.
Yet this evolution does not prevent television from routinely struggling to prepare for and dramatize the evolution of characters. Why? Because the demands of television as a business and the unpredictability of production impacts characterization in ways that most mediums never have to confront.
Exploring a character or situation over time is one of the great benefits of writing for television, but that selling point comes with a price that can’t be avoided. In general, if an original series pilot is picked up, the network airing the series will commit to a specific number of episodes — the hope being that an audience will follow the show in sufficient numbers to commit to a second season, and so on. From a preparation point of view this initial commitment is helpful, but the uncertainty at the end of each season is not. Because of the inevitable lag in production between shooting, editing and airing an episode, the last few episodes in any series may already be in the can when the decision is made to either cancel or continue a series, meaning both possibilities must be prepared for in advance. Not an easy task under the most ideal circumstances, and one that has become increasingly difficult in the age of internet-splintered audiences and shorter and shorter audience attention spans.
Preparation and Duration
At a philosophical level it makes little sense to prepare for something perpetual. We prepare for journeys, for objectives, for tests, for change. In fiction we’ve already noted that static or fixed characters — even the regulars in a television series — need little or no preparation precisely because they are constant.
Characters that are to be moved by the action of the story do need preparation, as do events that unfold. Characters that move dramatically must be convincing in their movement, and the only way to do that is through depth of preparation and characterization. The greater the intended change, the more the audience needs to know in order to perceive the change as motivated rather than manipulated.
This relationship between preparation and change holds across all mediums. Characters that will not change need minimal preparation in order to fulfill their fixed roles. Peripheral characters that change slightly need additional preparation in support of their movement. Main characters that change considerably, or change only slightly but against all apparent desire, need significant preparation.
The Character Arc
I do not like, and have never used, the term character arc. I understand it, I know it can be useful as shorthand, but I refuse to employ it because it springs from a formulaic approach to storytelling. To understand the nature of my objection, consider this example:
- Character A is introduced as a timid sort.
- Character B terrorizes Character A.
- Character A contemplates suicide.
- Character A stands up to and turns the tables on B.
That’s a character arc. It’s slick, it’s formulaic, it’s boring, yet it meets all the requirements. It has a beginning, a dramatic high point (the top of the ‘arc’), and it resolves.
Yes, I know it’s a lame example. And yes, I know all character arcs need to be fleshed out. But what I wrote still fits the definition of a character arc even as it also fits the definition of bad storytelling.
It occurred to me recently, however, that there’s another way of conceptualizing the character arc. Rather than suggesting a sequence of dramatic events that rise and fall, a character arc might better be defined by the amount of preparation it demands — where preparation is the fuel necessary to launch the character on its ballistic trajectory. Not enough fuel and you undershoot, leaving the impression of a character shift or some other authorial machination. Too much preparatory fuel and you overshoot, implying that a character is more important than they actually are.
Here’s a revision of the above example, incorporating preparation:
- Character A is introduced as a timid sort. A series of events unfolds that A deals with by avoiding, fleeing or submitting to change.
- Character B terrorizes Character A. Maybe an escalation here, with B seemingly offering A the chance to flee, avoid or submit, but never relenting no matter how A complies or capitulates.
- Character A contemplates suicide. Nothing direct: that’s not in A’s DNA. This is going to be suicide by avoidance — as in a long alcoholic bender that ends in ‘accidental’ death.
- Character A stands up to and turns the tables on B. B’s giving A no choice — maybe even no choice to commit suicide — so there’s nowhere left to go. The final act should be inevitable, but not cathartic. A is being terrorized into action, and that’s going to do damage.
Thought of in this way, a character arc becomes not simply a plotted sequence of narrative objectives, but an expression of the inherent relationship between preparation and execution that is unique to each story you want to tell. What was formula (satisfy this requirement) becomes craft (build this).
Preparation and Uncertainty
In most mediums the task of providing the right amount of preparatory fuel for each character’s narrative journey is tricky enough. In television dramas the problem is a nightmare for the reasons stated above and more that I’ll get to in a moment.
Right now, however, imagine that you’ve been invited on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation that will last at least a month, but could last five years. What would you pack? How would you prepare? Do you have pets? Who’s going to make sure the pipes don’t freeze? Can you count on them if the trip lasts five years? One year? How can you possibly prepare for something so completely uncertain?
That’s what it’s like writing for a television series. Except it’s worse because it’s a collaborative process. The network, the producers and the actors all have their own agendas. Actors who were grateful at the beginning of the run will become appropriately possessive of their characters as the show rolls on. Some of them will want more dramatic meat to chew on, others will settle into a comfortable dramatic groove. And some of them will leave the show because they get bored — meaning you may have to resolve a character’s role or narrative journey out of phase with all the preparation you’ve laid down.
Precisely because television excels at an ongoing exploration of character, and because the demands of the medium involve considerable uncertainties, it’s actually the perfect medium in which to study the effect of preparation on character development. Where the average novel or film attains character closure, each episode in a modern television drama promises continual character development. A promise, it turns out, that can be crushing.
Here are three ways in which a modern series that treats characters as movable can (and almost certainly will) run into trouble over the long haul:
Character Stasis — When you can’t get a reliable fix on your target, one solution is to stop aiming. The dramatic equivalent is to present characters as fixed rather than moving, which is the solution television generally preferred for series regulars until the early 1980’s. Even in modern series you can see characters slip into this kind of fixed role, often because they provide a backdrop by which the eccentricity or growth of other characters can be highlighted. (If everybody’s changing, what’s the norm?)
Because audiences tend to become familiar with and enjoy specific aspects of characters, that familiarity can become a second motivation for character stasis. You can see this in its most elemental form in the catch-phrases adopted by both dramatic and comedic series. In Hill Street Blues, for example, a sergeant closed each daily briefing with the phrase, “Let’s be careful out there.” Over time this phrase went from character-driven to audience-driven to obligatory cliche.
Character Chaos — If you can’t get a fix on your target, another solution is to simply fire wildly. All writers write themselves into corners. All series’ become stale. All collaborative mediums run the risk of sudden illness or defection. One solution to preparing for these risks is not to prepare at all, letting the suddenness of change play out as an aspect of character.
Akin to a surprise plot twist, surprise revelations of character can work if they are written into subsequent events, and plausibly suggested by previous aspects of character, but they are not without cost. One risk is that a radical change of character may play out as a character shift, even if that wasn’t the intention. Second, some members of the audience may reject the loss of familiarity, particularly when the change is sudden and negative. (You love Character X, then the show reveals him to be a pedophile. You feel icky — if not deceived.) Third, there’s a limited number of times you can go to the chaos well before you undermine the audience’s faith in every other aspect of the story. (If everything can suddenly change then nothing has any inherent meaning.)
Character Torture — When you’re obligated to hit the same target over and over, how do you keep things interesting? Even a perfectly executed exploration of character over a single season, or two or three years, will run its course. What if your show runs another four years? And what if the show is predicated on large-scale movements of character rather than subtle shadings? Between worrying about your audience wandering away and satisfying actors who want a role they can continually sink their teeth into, the desire to repeat past successes, if not top them, can be impossible to avoid.
I first ran across what I’ve come to think of as character torture in a medical drama called St. Elsewhere — a precursor to shows like ER, and a contemporary of Hill Street Blues. I don’t remember how many years it took before the writers started torturing the lead characters in order the maintain dramatic momentum, but it was pretty ugly to watch and after a while I got tired of being played for a sucker. Years later, after enjoying a few years of ER, I saw the same thing happening and stopped watching even sooner. (The long, slow decline of the Mark Green character was both predictable to me and a perfect example of what I’m talking about.)
The longer a show lasts, the greater the difficulty of managing the preparation and movement of regular characters. Either characters languish and become static, or they get shoved through a meat grinder over and over in an effort to maintain dramatic steam. The lesson is that more time does not equal better drama, or even necessarily more drama. The relationship between preparation and character movement always holds, and sustaining a dramatic effect over years can be much more difficult than writing a story with a clear ending.
There are certainly ways to do so with more or less success (adding new characters is a big help), but the bottom line is that one of the greatest aids to dramatic power for both writer and audience alike is the certainty of the duration of a narrative. Leave a story open-ended and you complicate the storytelling process considerably. (If you were a fan of either The Sopranos or The Wire you saw pretty much every aspect of this problem play out in spades over the life of those shows.)
Rust Hills was right when he said a series that treated its regular characters like static brands had it “exactly backwards”. The main character(s) of any story will almost always be the moved character(s). But meeting that obligation in a television series only kicks the can down the road because the demand for preparation never ceases.
— Mark Barrett
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