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.