One of the benefits of holding myself to a regular writing schedule is being able to quickly identify the things I should be working on. The first couple of chapters of THE CULT OF MAXIMUS feel a little boring to me, and that’s mostly because my main character — Officer Thomas Beck — is so inert as a protagonist. I had initially envisioned him as someone who was “Indiana nice,” to steal a phrase from a friend — polite to a fault, treating the “if you don’t have anything nice to say…” adage as a life-or-death value, but being fairly judgemental inside his own head. The events of the story would identify that as a problem and force him to speak up about the things he felt; he’d then have to actually engage with the world, become a part of it in a way he mistakenly believes he shouldn’t in order to be a good police officer. In some ways, it’s a lesson that’s top of mind for me right now.
But in the first couple of chapters, Thomas is a little…quiet and reactive. He’s observant, but writing the act of observation doesn’t really offer us any insight into his character — how he thinks and feels. It’s something that I’ve been focusing on in chapter three, and when I rewrite the first two for general consumption that is definitely the thing that I’ll be focusing on; that and seeding themes and events happening later in the story here.
It’s clear to me now that the “discovery” style of writing didn’t quite work for this story — that isn’t to say I won’t try it for another, but with a long-form project like this you have to at least have *something* pinned down. If not your character, then the plot, and if not your plot, then a solid world, or a theme, or something you really want to say.
Since characterization has emerged as a big deal for me, I’ve been paying closer attention to it in the stories I’m reading or watching, too. It’s struck me that Marvel comics and their cinematic universe excel at this — being able to create, communicate and maintain distinct and engaging characters across the board.
The husband and I recently finished the first season of Daredevil, the first entry into their “Hell’s Kitchen” corner of the shared universe with Netflix. It’s an astonishing series that draws a dangerous and shadowy world over thirteen episodes, fully populated with wonderful, mesmerizing characters. My favorite TV shows are often a series of conversations between two people with distinct points of view and a sharp wit; Daredevil‘s characters may not be the lightest in the world, but oh man are they earnest. Every single one of them enter a scene with clearly-drawn desires, and the stakes for them are increasingly high through each episode. They’re earnest, good at communicating, and incredibly strong-willed. Looking at them, you understand who they are and why they want the things they do.
This treatment doesn’t stop at the heroes — Matt Murdock, his partner Foggy Nelson and their assistant Karen Page. Wilson Fisk has emerged as one of the best villains I’ve seen on television in a long time, thanks to the incredible attention paid to his inner world by the writers’ room. Vincent D’Onofrio gives a hell of a performance, too. His character journey is utterly fascinating as we learn who he is, how he made himself from who he was, and who he thinks himself to be. He’s a truly tragic figure who is also incredibly dangerous.
Daredevil has taught me a lot about how characters are shaped by what they say, what they do, and how they say and do it. I love it for that, and I can’t wait to take that lesson to my writing.
Meanwhile, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD is about to wrap up their third season later this month and I’ve been enjoying the hell out of that as well. I know a lot of folks sampled it through a comparatively slow first twelve or thirteen episodes, but the events of Captain America: Winter Soldier kick-started it into a higher gear that it hasn’t slowed from for the remainder of its run. The series is now focused on the Inhuman corner of the Marvel cinematic universe, all while constantly reshuffling the deck when it comes to SHIELD and its nemesis organization, HYDRA.
What Agents does particularly well is balancing a pretty brisk plot with deep characterization, making really effective use of limited screen time for its massive cast. Each scene between its characters does multiple things — often expanding, progressing or revealing a character’s motivation while also establishing another link in the plot’s chain. When someone makes a choice, you understand what it means for them to do that AND know how it’s been forced by circumstances AND wonder how it changes the direction of consequences for everyone involved. The sense of forward momentum creates this complex, unpredictable world that’s forever evolving; you see how Coulson and his crew are forced to change in order to keep up, and the toll that takes on everyone. Even more impressive, the protagonists aren’t solely reactive; their experiences give them this drive to enact these missions or change their views enough that they make pro-active (or rash) choices that are understandable, even relatable, but clearly mistakes.
Agents of SHIELD is a great marriage of character work and tight plotting in an ensemble cast. There’s almost no weak link in the show, and that’s really impressive for a story of its scope. I can take that lesson to THE CULT OF MAXIMUS, too — now that we’re nearly finished with the establishment of the characters and the world, I can use the show as something of a template for how the action moves forward, and how it’s formed by the inextricable threads of character and plot.
I’m genuinely grateful to be living in this Golden Age of Television — learning how to tell engaging, complicated stories in an episodic format has developed into a really great art, and watching the work of people who are really good at it helps me with my personal storytelling development.
How about you lovely writers? Are there shows that have storytelling aspects that have influenced you bunches? Which stories have you used for inspiration or lessons in how to deepen your own craft?