In this Character Series post we’ll be exploring:
- The appeal of innocent characters
- The pitfalls of fickle characters and
- Disappointing character arcs.
Whether by it’s strengths or its weaknesses, Revolution will teach us how to improve our writing skills in the 3 character points above.
In watching the first season of the TV series Revolution, I noticed first the appeal of having innocence in your characters–and secondly the importance of keeping that innocence, or sympathy.
Sympathetic Characters Appeal to Readers
Right off the bat we are led to follow Charlie. She is young and naïve in the brutal ways of the world outside her little agrarian village. One of the things that makes her so appealing and likable right off the bat, and for pretty much the first half of the season, is her misguided naïve belief that there simply has to be good people everywhere, and that everyone has some good in them.
We as viewers (readers if this were a book) instantly find her appealing for this very reason. We know she is mistaken, and so we are just waiting with rapt attention for the moment when she realizes this, knowing full well that this revelation will hit her hard. And of course, when that moment comes, we feel for her. Kudos to the writers so far.
But then, when she is finally forced to face the hard truth that not everyone is good, and that even she has bad in her, it’s not long before she loses her baby-faced naiveté and abandons all her appeal. She is forced to kill someone. Though she reels from this, she then kills again soon after, and with almost no compunction this time. Suddenly she is fine with killing, a battle-hardened warrior who no long hopes to see good in everyone. In the (whiplash-swift) process she becomes a different character. I suppose some people may like the warrior girl who is not afraid to make the hard choices, but the character arc shifted far too quickly to be believable and MOST IMPORTANTLY Charlie failed to retain any of the innocence that made her likeable—forcing viewers to decide if they like this new character. Naturally there will be some who do, but the writer’s decision here suggests they were
- Impatient to conjure a new character or
- Perhaps they didn’t like their original creation. Either way, they disrespect their viewers by disregarding established character traits. This is a writer’s mistake, as it will inevitably alienate much of your viewership.
The Pitfalls of Fickle Characters
Though I enjoy many features of Revolution, one thing that really disappointed me as a writer was the fickleness of most of its characters.
They switch their loyalties almost every episode. First Monroe wants to find Miles to ask him something, then he just wants to hug him. But later he’ll exhaust every effort to hunt him down and kill him dead! After that maybe it’s time to team up with Miles. Miles wants nothing more than to drink himself to death, but then, after a rousing fight he decides yes he will help Charlie find Danny. Later Miles wants to kill Monroe, but then on seeing his old bestest buddy he decides he just can’t do it. But wait, next episode he does want to kill him, and he’ll commit mindless atrocities to do it! Tom Neville is perhaps the most fickle character. He changes sides so often I stopped trying to figure out what he wants. (Though he was played brilliantly by Giancarlo Esposito, AKA Gus).
It is through Neville’s ever-shifting loyalties that the problem with Revolution’s fickle characters becomes glaringly obvious, from a literary standpoint.
If your characters shift loyalties or otherwise change their minds without a slow and intelligently foreshadowed reason to do so, then the shift becomes less a character arc and more a display of lazy thoughtless writing. It suggests the character does not know what they want—and this is always a major no-no.
Strong characters know who they are and what they want.
Weak characters flip-flop their agendas, change their loyalties the way Facebook changes its rules, and don’t know what they want. So if you want to create a strong character, give her something to short for and make her strive for it with single-minded focus. Make her devoted and faithful to a certain somebody or to a certain set of ideals. She doesn’t even have to be a good person. Sometimes scumbag characters appeal to viewers because they are written with these two things in mind:
- They know what they want and go after it and
- They stay true to themselves.
Just look at Jaime Lannister; he’s a total scumbag, but readers like him.
Disappointing Character Arcs
There’s nothing worse than a character that goes nowhere—except for the character who goes somewhere disappointing.
(If you’re not sure exactly what character arcs are and why they’re important, you might want to check out our exclusive post on it here.) By the end of a narrative—be it a show, movie, or book—a character must have either:
- Learned from his journey
- Achieved a greater understanding of self, or
- Achieved his goal, as laid out in the beginning of the narrative.
If your character fails to accomplish at least one of these, then there is no real arc. The entire story may end up feeling pointless. Your viewers may be left wondering why they bothered, and so they won’t bother returning for your next work.
In the first season of Revolution some of the characters end up achieving their goals. But, things were not as they thought and so their achieved goals turn sour in their mouths, which made for a disappointing ending. None of them seems to have achieved greater understanding of themselves, for they are all still angry broken people who don’t know who they are outside of the war. Maybe this changes in the second season. All I know is that by the end of Season 1 the only character I still cared about was Aaron Pitman, and it is no coincidence that he remained unwavering in his character loyalties and true to himself.
In your writing, be sure to create strong characters who know who they are and who don’t suddenly shift loyalties or worldviews, and who are (and remain) sympathetic in some way. Without that sympathy card your readers won’t bond with your characters.
If you’re feeling up to it, a more advanced option is to create strong characters who know who they are but are without sympathy because they are scumbags. In the beginning they appeal for the very reason that they are engaging, and bring this interesting nature into every scene.
HERE’S THE ADVANCED WRITER’S METHOD FOR CREATING SYMPATHY FOR UNSYMPATHETIC CHARACTERS:
Put them through the ringer, and I mean beat the piss out of them! Dragging your strong but unsympathetic character through hell is a masterstroke in making them likeable. George R.R. Martin understands this and milks the sympathy card for all it’s worth in his Song of Ice and Fire series. By making Jaime Lannister a captive, chopping off his famous sword hand, and making him at last confess the truth of his infamous kingslaying, he stirs something in viewers, creating sympathy in their minds until they begin to sympathize with this formerly unsympathetic character. Jaime, who pushed a child out of a window, makes whoopee with his sister, and goes out of his way to mock Ned Stark and Jon Snow, is now frequently listed among the most popular Game of Thrones characters.
I hope you enjoyed this exploration of the characters in Revolution. God bless you in applying the lessons here to your own characters! Next up we’ll dig into LOST, a master work in character introductions and traits.