The TV Writer on TV Writing
Characterization Part 2
by Larry Brody
I started writing about characterization a couple of months ago but got sidetracked. Sorry for the delay.
Although, now that we’re talking about this sort of thing, the fact that it took me so long to get to Part 2 tells you something about my character, doesn’t it?
Ah, but that’s a whole other kind of lesson, isn’t it?
So. Back to fiction. Once you the writer have given us, the audience, characters with whom we can sympathize (even if we don’t particularly like them), your next job is to give these new people some “tsuris,” which is Yiddish for “Trouble with a Capital T.”
As Aristotle pointed out back when I was just a child, effective writing comes from building up tension throughout the story, until at last writer and audience – and characters – share a climax.
It’s pretty much like sex, when you think about it. But this is a family website, so we’ll just, you know, move on.
What this need for ever-increasing jeopardy means is that once you’ve established the basic situation for your character – the need she or he must fulfill or the problem he or she has to solve – the best way to structure the story is to start out “small,” with, say, only one seemingly unmanageable stress. But then, even as your character starts to dig out of the original crisis, don’t let the tension ease. Instead, ratchet up the pressure…and then repeat as needed, until you hate yourself for being such a cruel writer-god.
That’s right, your job is to turn the screws and pile more and more crap on your characters’ heads – especially the heads of the hero or heroes. It’s not bad enough that the boss of the lead has told her straight out that if she doesn’t make it to the next PTA meeting and bring the cookies she’s fired. Oh no, her son has to kidnapped, her husband has to leave her, and, well, giving the poor heroine a fatal disease at that point could be just what you need.
Now we’re talking stress that even Xanax can’t handle.
With the right set of troubles, the audience feels for even the most unlikable lead. One of my favorite films as a little something by Robert Altman called THE PLAYER. In it, the lead, a film studio executive played by Tim Robbins, coldbloodedly kills a man who in no way deserves such a fate – well, in no way other than that he’s a writer, that is – but Tim’s life gets so tough afterward that even writers who watch the film identify with the situation he’s in and root for “the poor guy” all the way.
As writers we’re always playing God. So do like He did and make all your characters – especially your darling of darlings – into miserable, pitiable Jobs.
Larry Brody is the Big Boss here at TVWriter™. Learn more about his storied career.