Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How watching too much TV can be a good thing...

I'm the first to admit that I probably watch far too many TV shows than I should. This consumption of visual entertainment definitely eats into my writing time and often keeps me up way past my bedtime, consequently eating into my reading time, but I like to justify all those hours spent watching my favorite shows as research.

For the last three weeks, I have been addicted to White Collar. I stumbled upon this series looking up Matt Bomer in the wake of The Normal Heart. The premise of the story piqued my interest and also, Matt Bomer. (Oh look, an excuse to post a picture of this beautiful man...)

Matt Bomer as Neal Caffrey in White Collar

Within the first ten minutes, I was hooked, and needless to say I have spent many long nights over the past couple of weeks devouring all five seasons of the show. Yes, the plot is clever and the show balances episodic crime solving with over-arcing personal storylines very well, but that alone wouldn't have been enough to sustain my interest. The reason I'm watching and have become so invested in the show is because of the characters and their on-screen chemistry. It's rare that the starring relationship of a show should be one between two straight men. Sure there are romantic side stories, but the main relationship and the one viewers are invested in is between con-artist Neal Caffrey and FBI agent Peter Burke.

So, having never studied creative writing or attended any formal writing courses, I'm going to learn as much as I can wherever I can, which most definitely includes TV. There is a critical difference in writing a novel and writing for TV. The most obvious being that a TV show requires a script with scant description and tons of dialogue, whereas novels should be the perfect balance of exposition, description and dialogue. That said, good writing in TV can still be a major education particularly in how to write snappy, engaging dialogue in the voice of the individual character.

But that's not the main reason I watch TV. In fact, it's not even the premise or plot that often gets me hitting that 'next episode' button until 4AM but rather the characters. Like White Collar, all my favorite shows are the ones that allow me to fall hook, line and sinker for the characters, characters that amuse, frustrate, intrigue, delight and enthrall me. By watching these shows and dissecting the characters I fall in love with (or in hate with, thank you Joffrey), I'm discovering a lot about characterization, about how to create flawed, but lovable characters and place them in situations that challenge them. This might seem obvious, but it's easy to forget these things when you're writing an 85k word science fiction novel and getting tangled up in plot and world-building.

Never again will I sit idly staring at the moving pictures on the screen hoping to absorb the nuances of character development via osmosis. I've decided to take action, doing character studies of those characters - be they protagonist or antagonist - that really speak to me. Here are the things I try to look for while creating my character profiles:

  1. Basic personality descriptors in episode 1
  2. What does the character want?
  3. Greatest strength
  4. Greatest weakness
  5. Major incident that has influenced/caused their greatest strength & weakness
  6. Childhood influences of current emotional/psychological state
  7. Relationship with parents/siblings if any
  8. Relationship with friends/lovers 
  9. Defense mechanism
  10. Default emotional response to stress/not getting what they want
  11. Hobbies/interests that show stress response or emotions not otherwise displayed or reveal different aspect of personality
  12. Personality descriptors in last episode (or season finale)
  13. Chart the change in the character noting plot points or critical moments that caused this change

I've already learned a lot by becoming a more active watcher of TV shows and I'm sure I'll learn a lot more as I start studying and deconstructing the likes of Neal Caffrey, Dean Winchester, Kate Beckett, Vanessa Ives, and Damon Salvatore. And these are all things I can actively apply in my writing to create complex, nuanced characters that will hopefully enthrall readers as much as they enthrall me on the screen. That, or I've found a pretty good way of making myself feel better about all the TV I watch ;)

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