Tag Archives: Believable characters

Desperately Bored Housewives

I recently stumbled upon the ITV mini-series The Bletchley Circle. In this new spin on a crime drama, four women who used to work at the top-secret Bletchley Park working on breaking German war codes, find themselves working on the codes and patterns inherent in a serial killer’s latest crime spree. (I actually watched Series 1 on Netflix. Series 2 was recently on ITV but I haven’t seen that yet, so no spoilers please!)

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What really struck me about this show wasn’t the crime-solving or the relationship between the four women, although IMHO both are excellent. It was something that follows on rather nicely from last week’s discussion of clichés.

Susan Grey, the ring-leader of the group is married with two children. Her husband is nice, they have a trusting and loving relationship; the children are equally nice. But Susan used to be important and valuable, she used to contribute directly to the war effort, using her considerable mental brilliance to crack codes and literally save lives. Now, it’s the 1950s and Susan is trapped in the role of Housewife and Homemaker. She isn’t unhappy, as such, but she is Bored.

Susan Grey is a Bored Housewife. As such, she’s a clichéd character. And yet, I relate to her more than I think I’ve ever related to any other fictional character. She is well-drawn and believable. And I know exactly what it’s like to have given up an intellectual and valued job to do something which (while arguably far more important) is definitely neither valued nor intellectual. It’s not the 1950s any more; to some extent I have more options than her, but the similarity is stronger than the differences.

So what makes this use of a cliché OK? Here are two factors, both of which I think are required to make it work.

1) Some stereotypes exist because they are true. Some don’t, and those are the ones we should stamp on, but some definitely do. I’m far from the only woman who finds herself in a position similar to Susan Grey’s. Indeed, as women’s rights and opportunities in the workplace have flourished over the last century, this situation has become more and more common. Sure, we can go back to work – unlike her – but right now as we watch, we find ourselves very much Bored Housewives.

2) Characters still have to be Characters. The stereotype will take us only so far, and what really makes the character is how we develop it. Susan Grey is a Bored Housewife, yes, but she isn’t in a terrible relationship with an uncaring husband and bratty children and she isn’t trying to escape her boredom by bedding the gardener (THAT hasn’t been new or interesting since Lady Chatterley, in spite of what Desperate Housewives would like you to believe). Susan Grey is likeable and relatable, and she isn’t just a stereotype, a stereotype is just where she begins.

If you’ve watched the show, I’d love to hear what you think of it. If you’re a Bored Housewife, feel free to vent about it. Even if neither of those applies, who are your favourite examples of a subverted stereotype making a fantastic character?

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Success or No Success?

Those of you who know me in real life may be concerned that this is becoming an obsession, but I am genuinely intrigued by the success of the British TV show, Deal or No Deal (Note: the US and probably other versions of the show are hideously disappointing by comparison. This is not a post about the value of pretty girls in bikinis prancing about with boxes in their hands).

For those who don’t know, it is a gameshow, in which there are 22 boxes, each with a secret amount of money hidden inside (ranging from 1p to £250,000). The contestant takes a box at random at the start of the show, not knowing how much money it contains. Over a series of rounds, he opens the other boxes three at a time and after each set of three, the Banker (a mysterious man on the end of a telephone) offers to purchase the player’s box for a sum of money determined by the Banker. The contestant can Deal (sell his box for the offered amount) or No Deal (keep playing). At the end of the game, if the contestant has not said Deal, he takes home the amount in his box.

What fascinates me about this, is the success of the show. Most gameshows revolve around a quiz of some sort or a physical challenge which is genuinely diverting to watch. As the viewer, you may enjoy the banter between the hosts (Pointless, Countdown) or between the host and the contestants (Weakest Link) but you watch it to test yourself against the questions or challenges. With DOND, there is “just one question” and although you can try to decide when you would deal, that’s a pretty weak reason to watch the show. But watch it people do. Enough people that it’s been running for 7 years and shows no sign of slowing down.

So why? And what’s this got to do with a Writing blog? Well, to answer the second question first, everything. If an author could keep readers coming back every day for 7 years with a simple list of numbers, wouldn’t we do it? (On the side, obviously, using the money to fund our Art).

Create Lovable Characters

Contestants spend a couple of weeks in the wings before they take The Chair. The audience develops a relationship with them over the weeks; in-jokes and nicknames help to cement this. By the time they take the Chair, contestants already have the TV audience rooting for them to do well.

Similarly, little things are what make readers love your characters. Mr Darcy is not drop-dead gorgeous, but his character is so well-developed by Jane Austen that he has women all over the world swooning by the time he makes a move on Elizabeth Bennett.

And a Hate-able Villain

The Banker is nothing more than a black telephone. He is deliciously cruel to the contestants and the whole audience loves to hate the Banker. He is the enemy, the obstacle the contestant must overcome, the challenge they must beat. This programme could easily have been run with a computer making the offers, but if it had, I don’t think it would have been half as successful.

Focus on the obstacles your characters have to overcome. There may not be a villain we can boo, but there must be something your characters are up against, in order for the readers to really root for them.

Keep Raising the Stakes

At the end of the first round, most players  have at least some of the mega-high boxes and at least some of the very-low ones left available. Although the values available in the game can fall, the emotional value to the player is always kept high, the offers are always a careful balance between the risk of winning less and the chance of winning more, and the longer the game goes on, the higher the probability of taking out the remaining big numbers.

The received wisdom in plotting is to simply keep raising the stakes, making the obstacles bigger, the threats greater and the dangers more … err… dangerous. However, I think even if some of the events in Acts 2 and 3 are lower value, the characters’ reactions to them can make them higher stakes. If you lose your wife and mother in Act One, losing your dog in Act 2 might seem like a lower value obstacle, but what if the dog was the only thing you had left to live for? Value is in the eye of the beholder.

When world-building, don’t get too hung up on set-dressing

The set of DOND is a pretty basic box with a few flashing red lights for the Banker’s calls, a screen in the middle to show the boxes still available, and a big black telephone with an old-fashioned cord. It’s basic, it’s cheap. And no-one gives a damn.

A lot of writers agonise over having their readers smell and taste and hear the world the characters are living in, and description definitely has its place. The Bronte sisters couldn’t have lived without it (they certainly couldn’t have produced stories long enough to be called novels!). But if the story is good and the characters are good, the setting is less crucial. In fact, if you spend too long on setting, readers will get bored and move on.

Focus on Details instead

Although the set is simple, DOND plays on some superstitions and rules that have grown up with the game. For example, if you open the box with the 1p inside, you have to go to the front and share a celebratory kiss with the contestant; boxes 22 and the “newbie” (the latest future-contestant to join the game) are cursed and likely to ruin your game. These weren’t programmed in by the makers of the show, they have evolved over time, but they form part of the show now and add to the richness of the viewing experience.

Instead of a five page description of the world your story is set in, focus on a few crucial details. Make them something the readers can latch onto, make them realistic but also unusual. Then make sure they remain consistent however complicated the rest of the story gets.

 

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