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Writing About Characterization

Yesterday was a good day, and I credit Mad Men on AMC.

I had tried watching the show when it originally aired several years ago, but for one reason or another I missed a few episodes. While most television shows today air clips before an episode to catch up new viewers, the story arc on Mad Men (and most good television shows today) suffers from infrequent viewing. Some writers are too good at building their worlds and the people who populate them, and if you're not a frequent viewer you're going to miss some of the emotional resonance offered.

There are lots of examples. Breaking Bad on AMC, Dexter on Showtime, Big Love on HBO.

A coworker hooked me on Mad Men last year, before season 3 aired, and he kindly lent me the first two seasons on DVD. I looked forward to season 4, which started Sunday, especially since several main characters were left at turning points: divorce, marriage, new jobs. The show did not disappoint--and I believe it succeeded because it placed characterization front and center. We see the main character, Don Draper, recently divorced, dealing with the aftermath of his divorce. He's sharing custody of his three children with his wife, struggling to make ends meet since he's letting her continue to live in their home with her new husband and his new ad agency is still clawing its way up Madison Avenue. It's Thanksgiving, and he's avoiding his wife, his kids, his friends and coworkers. Thanksgiving for Don Draper is an afternoon with a prostitute he asks to slap him over and over again. While those scenes hold up for new viewers within the context of this first episode, there are so many other layers underneath his actions for those who viewed the previous three seasons.

Which put me in the right frame of mind to finish chapter 2 in Sacrifices, which was a setup chapter that introduces one of my main characters. The juggling act within the chapter was determining how to keep a consistent narrative thread throughout, rather than just writing a flashback chapter. The line between showing and telling. And how much to show without snarling that thread.

You can get away with a lot in fiction--if you inoculate your readers. And the best way to do that is to get them to identify with your characters. If readers see themselves or someone they know in your fiction, they're more willing to climb on board for the ride.

So far I'm off to a better start than earlier attempts. I've got a character with some interesting character traits and faults he needs to try overcoming during the story's course. The words fell with the predictability of dominoes, and I saw the plot patterns emerging while I mowed the lawn yesterday afternoon. There's nothing like a good sweat to get my muse up and running; before I finished I'd mapped out the next three to four chapters. And everything bears relevance to this character--what he did in the past, what he's going to do in the future, how he reaches the story's climax, and how his actions affect other characters, for good and ill.

Definitely a good day. Thanks, again, Mad Men.

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February 2012


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