Spoiler Alert: Plot points from the first season of How to Get Away with Murder discussed herein.
In the previous post, I touched briefly on the subject of character arcs. An arc is the personal transformation or catharsis a character undergoes—almost always against his will—over the course of a story: In fulfilling his obligation to get outlaw Russell Crowe on board the titular 3:10 to Yuma when everyone else bails on the dangerous endeavor, rancher Christian Bale learns at long last to have dignity; in the process of uncovering who framed him for murder in Minority Report, PreCrime detective Tom Cruise comes to terms with the devastating loss of his son some years earlier (excellent movies both).
Arcs are what give a story its emotional resonance. Take Dirty Dancing: It could’ve easily been one of a thousand 1980s teen-romance movies all but forgotten here in 2015. But, it became a worldwide phenomenon—and lasting cinematic classic—because not one, not two, but five characters experience profound transformational arcs in that film: Baby, Johnny, Penny, Lisa, and Mr. Houseman. That’s rich storytelling—deceptively so.
Transformational arcs are designed to force a character to confront his so-called “fatal flaw”—a psychic wound that’s been haunting him, that’s been holding him back, since incited by some trauma in the backstory. (So, in 3:10 to Yuma, the traumatic catalyst would be Bale’s shameful cowardice on the battlefield; in Minority Report, it was the unsolved kidnapping of Cruise’s son that led to his personal downward spiral). There are exceptions to this design—Luke Skywalker, for instance, has a very powerful arc that spans three movies, no less, yet he bears no fatal flaw when we first meet him on Tatooine (for reasons we’ll perhaps discuss on another occasion)—but, by and large, protagonists typically suffer from some measure of psychic scarring that makes the events of the plot emotionally difficult for them, forcing personal growth in the process.
Considering the vastly improved representation of minorities on network TV this season—Empire, Black-ish, Cristela, Fresh Off the Boat, How to Get Away with Murder—it isn’t altogether surprising that the most delightful, dynamic, dimensional character to grace the small screen at present has emerged from the freshman pack. What did catch me off guard, I’ll be big enough to admit, is that it was the least likely character on the last show I expected.
After nearly a decade of identity crisis, anemic ratings, and critical indifference, The CW, bastion of star-crossed supernatural romance and small-screen superheroics, scored its first Golden Globe win this season—for an adaptation of a Venezuelan telenovela, no less: Jane the Virgin.
Jane offers something a little different than its Big Network counterparts—something harder to categorize: deftly written dramedy that concurrently satirizes and honors its telenovela heritage, complete with idiosyncratic flourishes like a whimsical narrator and on-screen text commentary. Some of its characters, like Jane’s father, telenovela superstar Rogelio de la Vega (portrayed by Mexican actor Jaime Camil), are as consciously absurd as the series’ plot twists. Yet in spite of his ostensible function as straight-faced comic relief, an analysis of Rogelio’s five traits shows him to be a case study in psychological complexity and originality.
Last week, we looked at the Joker as portrayed by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster Batman and analyzed his five traits:
- Criminally, murderously sociopathic
- Wickedly macabre sense of humor
This interpretation somewhat varied from those that had come before it: He was certainly more lethal than Cesar Romero’s Clown Prince of Crime from the old Adam West series, and artistic is such a singular Tim Burton peculiarity—a signature he left on the crazy-quilt mosaic that comprises the Joker in his ever-evolving mythic totality; in American Idol’s clichéd parlance, Burton “made it his own.” His Joker shared an undeniable DNA strand with the arch-villain created by Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger, and Bob Kane in 1940, the one later personified by Romero in the sixties, as well as then-contemporary comic incarnations as envisioned by Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns), Alan Moore (The Killing Joke), and Grant Morrison (Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth), despite the markedly different aesthetics within which each of those varied interpretations were realized.
Because where is the line drawn, really, between a reinterpretation and an altogether different character? How does an artist (in a vocationally general sense) redefine a folkloric figure to reflect his own personal idiosyncrasies, the sociocultural conditions of the day, or both, while still working within the recognizable parameters of a time-honored fictional creation?
To commemorate his seventy-fifth anniversary, the United States Postal Service recently released a sheet of stamps featuring an illustration of Batman from each of the four culturally designated periods of comic-book history: Golden Age; Silver Age; Bronze Age; Modern Age. In light of Entertainment Weekly’s recent observation that we seemed to have reached peak Batman saturation, I can’t help but feel a nostalgic longing for the Batman of my youth. My Batman. You know the one I mean: The Batman that hopped behind the bubbled windshield of the Batmobile, an earnest Robin riding shotgun, fiery thrust of the afterburner blasting my heroes from the Batcave…
Hmm. That could’ve been several different Batmans—even in those more innocent times (for him and me)—now that I’m thinking it over. My first exposure to the Caped Crusader came in the form of syndicated afternoon reruns of the old Adam West series (which had ended its run over a decade earlier); at some point, my not-yet-literate mind recognized a correlation between the show’s splashy opening logo and repetitive choral chant that accompanied it, and “Batman,” to my mother’s surprise and delight, became the first word I could read and write. (She was, mercifully, apparently either unaware of or unconcerned with the admonitions of Fredric Wertham a quarter century prior.) Batman also had a strong animated presence at the time, appearing concurrently in a Filmation series that served as a de facto sequel to the ‘60s live-action show, as well as the long-running Super Friends franchise from Hanna-Barbera. (That these aired on competing networks, something that would never happen today, only serves to illustrate how comic-book characters have gone, in my lifetime, from licensed-property afterthoughts to tightly leashed, billion-dollar corporate assets. But, that’s a topic for another article…)
Were you paying close attention for clues during last night’s anticipated series premiere of How to Get Away with Murder? Did you manage to catch writer/creator Peter Nowalk’s object lesson in the simple art of murder?
It was easy enough to overlook. After all, Nowalk skillfully introduced multiple characters and mysteries in short order, creating—and holding his viewers in—the kind of edge-of-your-seat suspense that is the hallmark of the Whydunit genre (so modified from “Whodunit” because who, per Blake Snyder, is merely a conventional formality and ephemeral revelation—it’s the why that gives us the lasting insight into the dark side of human nature we crave from these stories). But, for students of the craft of screenwriting, consider yourself enrolled in How to Create a Fertile, Provocative Premise 101.
Here I am—intrepid screenwriter—gearing up to embark on a dizzying new adventure in my writing career: my first full-length novel—a work of historical fiction (with supernatural twist, of course—the change in venue isn’t indicative of revamped storytelling sensibilities on my part!). In a plot convenience straight out of a first-draft screenplay, Writer’s Digest recently hosted a novel-writing conference here in Los Angeles; among the seminars offered was a “Historical Fiction Boot Camp”—taught by no less than bestselling author David Morrell, who introduced the world to Rambo in his inaugural novel, First Blood (1972). I’d have likely attended the workshop regardless, but given that on my most recent vacation I lazed on the beach and read three Morrell novels in a row, the happenstance of it all seemed too providential to dismiss.
Caught myself up on the first season of House of Cards this past weekend. I know, I know. But, better late than never, right? After all, isn’t that the advantage of on-demand viewing? Nowadays, a good series is always available to be discovered.
There are shows that I tune into and consciously try to like, and then there are those that win me over midway through their pilot episode without any premeditated cooperation on my part. House of Cards falls squarely in the latter category. It’s a classic Institutionalized story, which Blake Snyder defines as any tale about the “crazy” or self-destructive group dynamics of an institution—in this case, Congress. Washington is well-represented in political television drama at present, but I certainly haven’t seen a series in which power plays are an end unto themselves: The movers and shakers that populate House of Cards make no attempt to justify their self-serving agendas with hollow allegiances of fealty to the Republic. And protagonist Frank Underwood’s stylized, Shakespearean asides to camera—a tough trick to pull off (Kevin Spacey makes it look so natural, hence his consecutive Emmy nominations for the first two seasons)—lend an intimacy that endears the audience to a character with which we might not otherwise be predisposed to empathize. (He works for Congress, after all, and have you seen their approval numbers of late?) Like most serialized protagonists, Frank is comprised of five key traits; I’m eager to get on with the second season, so let’s take a quick look at them:
This is the first in a series of posts on characterization, in which I reverse-engineer a psychological profile for an established fictional character.
Four years ago, the clock ran out on 24, the groundbreaking “real-time” television drama starring Kiefer Sutherland as indefatigable counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer. A writer on Lost once told me how much he loved 24 for being such an immersive entertainment experience: It made him completely forget, as he watched it, that he was both a television scribe and a liberal! Indeed, the series remained so reliably entertaining throughout its initial eight-season run that its often outlandish plot twists never seemed to irrevocably strain the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief, nor did its occasionally controversial depictions of both Muslims and the use of torture overshadow its legacy as an evolutionary pioneer in serialized television.