While series have a shelf life, some characters become immortal. DQ speaks to a group of writers about how they create the people we watch on screen.
When it comes to television drama, an intriguing plot might entice you to tune in and watch a pilot, a few episodes or even an entire season. But storylines can only take you so far.
For a series to break out beyond its log line and take viewers on a journey across multiple seasons – perhaps becoming a piece of timeless television that enters the zeitgeist along the way – it all comes down to character.
A drama about advertising executives in 1960s New York might not sound that thrilling on paper, but add the dynamic ensemble of Don Draper, Peggy Olson, Joan Holloway, Betty Draper, Pete Campbell and Roger Sterling and Mad Men becomes an Emmy-winning series that runs for seven seasons.
Similarly, describing Breaking Bad as the story of a desperate man with nothing to lose and what he is willing to do for his family’s survival creates enough curiosity to pique some interest. But throw Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, Skyler White, Hank Schrader, Gus Fring and Saul Goodman into the mix and you have some of the most watchable television characters of the past decade.
The same can be said for characters including Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Villanelle (Killing Eve), Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (The X-Files), Buffy Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Carrie Matheson (Homeland), Olivia Pope (Scandal), the Lannisters (Game of Thrones) and the inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary (Orange is the New Black), who themselves become the focal points of their respective shows, rather than any single plots they might become involved in.
But how do writers look to create compelling characters and how are they served through the story? “These are two pieces that are created and go together: characters and story,” says Brazilian screenwriter Antonio Prata. “One does not exist without the other. So we imagine the characters according to the theme covered in the series, the tone and the stories we want to tell.”
Prata’s Globo series Pais de Primeira (First Time Parents) explores the trials and tribulations of a modern couple who discover they are expecting their first child. “We wanted to talk about maternity and paternity nowadays, so we were interested in talking about a mother who grew up focused on her career and does not identify herself with the feminine stereotypes of the 20th century,” Prata says. “We also created a guy who tries to get involved as much as he can, who tries to be the best father in the world – but who tries so hard that he gets in the way and overloads his wife with his theories and opinions. They are characters that need to operate on the kind of path we create.”
The authenticity and relatability of those characters and their situation is what attracts viewers to the series, Prata believes. “The audience does not necessarily need to see themselves in them, but they must believe in their suffering and aspirations. Obviously, it is not enough for the characters to be well written; the role of the actors, the direction, the scenography, the lighting – everything helps or disturbs the ‘truth’ brought by the characters. The impact of the characters is also very much created by the way the actors embody them.”
Similarly, Dan Sefton imagines character and plot are on a feedback loop, constantly informing each other. The British writer has created series such as The Good Karma Hospital, Delicious and The Mallorca Files, while season two of his medical thriller anthology Trust Me aired on the BBC earlier this year. The latter’s story followed a soldier who, while hospitalised with spinal injuries, begins to investigate a new enemy as patients around him start dying.
“I just write everything down; every little idea I have goes down in the notes section on my phone,” Sefton explains. “This was an idea I thought of a long time ago and thought it would be a good idea for a thriller – Rear Window in a hospital, where this guy with a spinal injury is hunting down a murderer. Then we started to flesh out the characters and the plot.
“You start with that single idea on a note and expand and expand, and the details grow until you’ve got the whole show – four hours of stuff. It’s amazing to me, each time I do it, how it starts with something tiny and ends up being a production involving so many people to get it the best they possibly can.”
At the centre of Trust Me’s second season is Jamie, played by Alfred Enoch, who becomes convinced something sinister is unfolding in the hospital where he is confined to his bed.
“Initially with this story, I knew I wanted somebody who was very physical, because who’s the worst person to have a spinal injury? It’s someone who’s lived their entire life in a very physical way, someone who is very fit and active,” Sefton says. “Then you go, ‘He could be in the army – that works.’ Then you build on that and add some backstory that works for the plot.
“I don’t think it’s as simple as creating a fixed character. It goes round and round as they’re developed. Sometimes you have these cool ideas that could work for a scene and then you reverse-engineer the character so that it fits in. Sometimes it’s the other way round. It goes round and round – that’s why it takes so long.”
Set in the 1950s, Finnish period drama Shadow Lines is rooted in reality when it presents Helsinki as the heart of the Cold War, with CIA and KGB agents all vying for control of the capital of a country wedged between the US and Soviet Union.
It’s here that Helena (Emmi Parviainen), a student recently returned from the US, is recruited by a fictional top-secret task force hell-bent on keeping the country independent and preventing outside forces meddling in Finland’s presidential election. But as Helena discovers the truth about her past, her personal and professional lives collide.
Made for Finnish VoD and digital TV service Elisa Viihde, the show is written by mother-and-daughter writing team Kirsti and Katri Manninen. They devised the series based on research about the period and Finland’s place in the world at that time, setting a spy story against a factual global conflict. Its mixture of fact and fiction isn’t restricted to the setup, with some characters based on real people and the majority made up.
Helena is educated, ambitious and well-travelled, but once she joins this covert organisation, she begins to discover secrets from her past that change who she thought she was. “In thrillers, it’s good if the main character has some secret they are trying to uncover,” Katri Manninen says. “From Helena, we then started developing different characters. We also realised we wanted the group to be a family, because we are a very close family with my siblings and my parents. We wanted to have that family feeling, so we saw the characters through family members.”
That’s not to say Shadow Lines, produced by Zodiak Finland and distributed by APC Studios, leaves its villains out in the cold. “The Soviets were the bad guys, but even when we developed those characters, we were trying to make them interesting, and at least one or two of them really lovable and understandable, so that you could understand their struggle and you wouldn’t see the story from only one side.”
Manninen says that if writers have a structure in place, those boundaries can enhance creativity, because without limits, characters might be left underdeveloped. That structure, however, forces you to push further into their story.
“We are writers who invent very elaborate backstories for our characters. We know where they were born, where they went to school, what they did,” she explains. “Then we have a general idea where that will lead them. But the twists and turns and what happens when they interact with each other, that is where the creativity happens, where there is a lot of freedom, where we follow the characters. People always say writing is so hard. We think writing is amazing. Because we know where we are going, we have the map; we don’t get completely lost. If I get stuck at some point, then I just take a pause and jump to the next point and start writing from there.”
Meanwhile, BBC period drama Poldark, set in the late 18th century, concluded earlier this year. Based on the books by Winston Graham, the series was created by Debbie Horsfield, who is also behind original series such as salon-set shows Cutting It and Age Before Beauty. Like Manninen, Horsfield creates characters by blending fact and fiction. “I take elements of people from real life and create a character out of that,” she explains. “Sometimes it might just be an event that happens where I think, ‘That could make a good story.’ But normally it’s something that is current in my own life or family life.”
For example, Horsfield’s six-part BBC marathon-running drama Born to Run followed three generations of a family who all decide to train for a marathon. Though it wasn’t directly about her, it was based on her experiences of starting running after having her first baby.
“So it’s generally things I have first-hand experience of, either because I know somebody who has been through it or I’ve done it myself. I like to work like that because when it’s something you have a close experience of, there’s an integrity to it. There’s an authenticity to it. I find human nature is much more extraordinary than anything you can actually imagine, so that’s why I like to base things on real events and real people.”
Cutting It and Age Before Beauty also have roots in real life, as Horsfield’s sisters run a hairdressing business. “I come from quite a big family, so it’s interesting to look at family dynamics. It’s something I write about quite a lot,” she continues. “With Poldark, I have become much more fascinated by 18th and early 19th century history than I ever was at school because Winston Graham researched it so brilliantly, but he makes it about individuals. History used to be taught at school as a series of battles and acts of parliament, which was so dreary, but now I’m actually interested if they incorporate characters I’m engaged with. I’ve had a lot of people say they have started to take an interest in the period of Poldark because of the way they can see it impacted the characters.”
For Gillian Breslin, head writer of South African murder mystery The Girl from St Agnes (pictured top), “character influences or creates plot, so our first step is to figure out who they are.” In the eight-part series, produced by Quizzical Pictures for streamer Showmax, the death of popular student Lexi (Jane de Wet) is recorded as a tragic accident. Unconvinced by the police verdict, drama teacher Kate (Nina Milner) starts her own investigation that reveals a myriad of secrets.
Breslin and her team spent two months working out character and plot before writing began, with particular focus on building Lexi. “We thought it would be best if she was somehow manipulative. Then I did a lot of reading on these teenage crises and the more I read, the more I got a picture of who this girl was,” Breslin explains. “We knew we wanted Lexi to be an outsider somehow, whether it was economically or because of her family. As we started exploring that, it gave us more insight into the kind of character she was. Then once we had Lexi, we built her friends.
“In fact, Kate became the hardest to build, because though she’s the driver of the drama, she’s the seeker. It becomes quite hard to get her story outside of that. So she was the most challenging one for us to come up with. But once we found her, it was easier from there.”
Once the characters had been worked out – their personalities and their secrets – Breslin pulled them all together through motives and shared relationships. Then when their character arcs through the series were drawn out, every beat of every episode was plotted out.
“When you write at a pace, the characters tend to be very shallow and one-dimensional,” The Girl from St Agnes director Catharine Cook adds. “What I loved about these characters, particularly Lexi, is that she’s lovely enough but she is manipulative, so you don’t just love her, you don’t just say she’s a nice girl that got murdered. She had this fallibility about her; she had this other side that we have to take in. None of [the characters] are simply likeable – all of them have something about them that isn’t so cool, like all of us have.”
Shadow Lines’ Manninen sums up the golden rules of character building: “You have to feel it. You have to feel the emotions and really try to get into each of your characters, even the bad guys, because if you can’t do that, it’s probably a sign that you’re writing them from outside. If you want to write characters that feel real, you have to really go inside them and see where they come from so that you can know where they are going and how they will to react to different situations.”
Once you get inside the heads of your characters, she continues, you still need those “Oh my God” moments where they turn in ways that shock even the writer. “You should really have a feeling in the pit of your stomach, like, ‘This is horrible. I’m a horrible person, I’m really going to hurt my characters.’ That means you’re going to create these emotional moments. Then you’re getting somewhere.”
As an increasing amount of drama is produced, much of it left unseen behind the revolving carousels of streaming services, it is ultimately the characters that leave a legacy that will last beyond this golden age of television.
tagged in: Antonio Prata, Dan Sefton, Debbie Horsfield, First Time Parents, Gillian Breslin, Katri Manninen, Kirsti Manninen, Poldark, Shadow Lines, The Girl from St Agnes, Trust Me