Easiest Way To Fail Writing A TV Character by Peter Russell

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Film Courage: Diego R. writes in “Specifically for TV, how does one balance giving a satisfying season (or episode for that matter) plot and closure with complete character arcs, while leaving room for a new season that might be made?”

Peter Russell, screenwriter and script doctor:  Well, you don’t want to heal the wounds, that’s basically it. You take a show like Animal Kingdom, which is a great show by John Wells, specializing now taking foreign shows and then turning them into American shows.

You’ve got a matriarch (a poisonous matriarch) Ellen Barkin and her kids who she’s completely, massively screwing up constantly. You just never want to have those kids get better. And they don’t. One of them has just been killed and the others are just as poisonous as they were, they’re a nest of snakes. I mean the great thing about television is you replace healing which is what you get in a movie with surprise.

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So characters don’t change in television, they surprise with new (often appalling) aspects to their character you didn’t know about. Let me ask you this, you probably have someone you’ve known for 20 years right? And you know them better and better right?

Film Courage: Uh…some of them.

Peter: And as you get to know them better and better, don’t you find they’re insanely appalling people the more you know them?

Film Courage: Uh…a few of them! Yes, that would be an understatement.

Peter: Oh my God! Oh my God! They are even worse than I thought.

Film Courage: Yep.

Peter: That’s television. It’s like Uh, Dave see you later. Glad you’re not with your mother anymore. You’re learning new things about them…I’m just using that as an example.

Film Courage: He wasn’t the people I was thinking of.

Peter: You’re learning new things about them that shock you. They’re surprising.

Film Courage: Oh, yes.

Peter: For instance in the SOPRANOS that we were talking about earlier, Janice is getting married to a guy named Ritchie and they are discussing their wedding plans one night and he gets angry at her and suddenly slaps her which you’ve never, ever seen him do before. He’s never been violent to her. That’s a surprise that Ritchie suddenly slaps Janice. It’s not a change in his character, he’s not getting worse the way you do in a movie I’m getting worse because of my wounds. He’s just being Ritchie, but he’s a surprise. Then Janice goes to a closet while he’s sitting there eating his dinner and she comes out of the closet and she’s got a gun. And he goes C’mon? And BOOM! She shoots him. Right at the table, okay? That’s a new surprise from Janice. You haven’t seen her do that before, right? Is she healing or getting worse? No. She’s just Janice. It’s a new revelation of character. So the way you do it in television is you keep surprising us with new aspects of a character. Someone reveals something about themselves you didn’t know before. That’s why television is great. It’s more like real life than movies, right? It’s just you and your friends learning more and more appalling things about each other as you go along. And they are not things that are going to make you go Oh, they’re healing or they’re getting better. It’s like That’s just horrible. And so that’s the big difference between movies and television, surprise replaces healing.

Questions For The Viewers: Name some characters that are full of surprises?

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