What did Numb3rs do for us?

When we acquired Netflix a year ago, I was looking around for something I could watch during quiet babysitting moments, and the US crime drama Numb3rs seemed to fit the bill. A few episodes in, I concluded it was not up to much, with the episodes being somewhat formulaic, the characters not very interesting and the relationships between them a bit clichéd. But it fit what I wanted, including my need not to care too much about whatever I was watching, so I carried on.

Now I’m just getting going on the final series (on Netflix? Ever? I’m not sure. Don’t tell me!) and realizing that I’ll miss it when it’s gone. So, what’s changed – what’s the draw of Numb3rs now? And how is this relevant to a writing blog?

To answer the second question first, it’s relevant because this is the effect we want to have on our readers. A great novel isn’t just one you can’t put down while you’re reading it. It’s also one where, however desperate you are to know what happens, you don’t want it to end. You don’t want it to be done. And how do we get that?

I know him so well

I think part of it is simply a question of familiarity. These characters have been hanging out in my living room for months now. I’ve spent more time with them recently than with many of my friends. I’ll miss them when they’re gone. Unless you’re working on a series, you are unlikely to have readers spend months of their lives with your characters. But the characters might well be spending months of their lives in your readers’ heads, and that’s almost as good.

What You See Isn’t What you Get (***SPOILERS ALERT***)

The characters might have started life a bit wooden, but they have developed and grown through experience. The writers ran out of ways to tell us that Don was a womanizer, so they decided to have him have a crisis about it and settle down; they ran out of ways for Charlie and Amita to flirt geekily, so they had them get together. They ran out of personal plotlines for the brothers, so they had Colby do something interesting and be a spy. Then they realized that people like me were outraged and might stop watching, so they did a massive about-turn and made him be a double agent (all of which, by the way, is full of plot holes and inconsistencies, but I’ve forgiven them because we got Colby back).

As writers, we can’t rely on our readers to wait around for things to get interesting. (Numb3rs got away with it with me because I was a captive audience; I guess they got away with it with a lot of people because of the individual episode plotlines rather than the series-length character plotlines.) We need to provide rounded characters right from the beginning. But that doesn’t always mean they’ll be rounded when we start writing. Sometimes, you have to write a character for a while before you really get to know them – then go back and edit in more of their personality.

Character-Driven or Plot-Driven

Series like Numb3rs prove how short-sighted it can be to think of your writing as plot-driven or character-driven. Each episode is firmly plot-driven (the crime-drama element) but what will make me miss the series when it ends are the character-driven plotlines in the background. The relationships between the characters and their internal development. Like the screenwriters, novel-writers need to mix both ingredients into our novels to make a great whole.

United by adversity

I’ve seen these guys through stab wounds, explosions, double crossings and kidnaps, and I’ve been with them every step of the way. It’s still a bit formulaic, and there are still inconsistencies, plot-holes and boring bits. But we’ve been through the mil together. That’s what makes us really feel linked to characters – it’s what makes us wince when they’re hurt and cheer when they win. And that is what every novelist wants from her readers.



Filed under Writing

7 responses to “What did Numb3rs do for us?

  1. happycreators

    It is a very rare (but not unheard of) occasion for me when the concept of a show or book trumps everything else. This was the case for me with Numb3ers. I loved the concept of solving crimes with math so much that I overlooked some of the stiltedness and watched it for a bit. I often find episodic TV frustrating because the character development is so slow, but in certain cases I can handle it when the show is good enough (I felt the same about X-Files for example).

    Ben and I have fallen into the concept hole for a new show called ‘Under the Dome’. It is so unbearably horrible, horrible acting, writing etc… but the concept is compelling enough to keep us going back for more because we want to know what the heck is going on.

    If you want to find a new show to occupy the void Numb3rs might fill, I might suggest Bones. It’s episodic like Numb3rs and crime solve-y, but I actually find the main character to be quite compelling right off the bat because she has a social innocence/ignorance that makes her fascinating to watch!

    • Thanks, I may have to check it out. Although I have a feeling my watching companion is rapidly approaching the age when we’re going to have to stop watching violence, sex and swearing. 😦

  2. Jen, we were huge fans, too, for the reason you mentioned–we loved the characters. I also enjoyed the positive spin on math. My three shows right now are the two NCIS shows and “Blue Bloods”, all of which I enjoy for the same reason–I love the people and the caring attitudes they have towards one another. I watched “Bones” for the first few seasons but had to stop because I found so many of the characters highly annoying and because the series was so unlike the books as to make me furious. But that’s just me.


    • As I said to HC, Janet, thanks for the suggestions. I never got into NCIS, but maybe I should give it another try. I liked the positive spin on Maths, I just thought it took them too long to flesh out the characters – Don was too much of a player and Charlie too much of a geek for too long, IMHO

      • You’re right, but I’m willing to put up with some of the problems if there’s enough action (and it’s not TOO impossible) and if I like the people. Their dad was a great character, too.

  3. I’ve never seen the show, but my mother, a math teacher, loves it and it sounds interesting. I like how you tied it to writing in general. I agree that stories need to be both plot- and character-driven to be well-rounded.

  4. Pingback: Friday Fiction – Perms and Combs | elmowrites

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