Saturday, January 16, 2010

Compelling Characters

As mentioned in the previous post, I have written the pilot and a few episodes of a TV series I have called Father Tom. I am not an experienced or trained writer of drama, so I have had to make my way by trial and error, by reading books and by watching critically acclaimed dramatic TV series. I have recently been watching the HBO prison drama Oz on DVD, including some of the Special Features. In one of these, series creator Tom Fontana talks about being offered the chance to create, write, and produce Oz for HBO. Fontana had been a writer for the major networks and was not sure of the guidelines for writing for cable networks. When he asked the HBO execs if there were any restrictions on what he could write, he basically was given carte blanche. The big boys told him that they did not care whether a character was likable or not, only whether he or she was compelling.

Having watched nearly two and a half seasons of Fontana's series, I can say that some of the characters on Oz are indeed compelling. Let's take the inmate Tobias Beecher, for example. What makes this character compelling is his complexity; he is both a victim and a victimizer. Beecher is a Harvard-educated lawyer in his mid-thirties, with a wife and two young children who was given the maximum sentence for striking and killing a girl with his car while driving under the influence. After he is convicted and has spent time in prison, his wife leaves him and eventually commits suicide, leaving a note blaming him for ruining her life. In Oz ["Oz" is short for Oswald State Penitentiary] Beecher quickly becomes the "bitch" of white supremacist and hardened con Vern Schillinger, who burns a swastika into Beecher's ass and subjects him to regular humiliation. Tobias's troubles in prison and his addictive personality lead to heroin use and ultimately to renewed alcohol abuse. He becomes violent himself and turns the tables on Schillinger by temporarily blinding him in one eye and setting him up for a murder conspiracy charge that wrecks his chances of parole. Finally, by the end of Season Two, Beecher finds himself in love with an apparently sympathetic cellmate who is actually a plant arranged by Schillinger assigned to torment his former boy. Through all his physical and emotional pain, his addiction, and his seething anger, Beecher's intelligence manages to keep shining through.

There are other characters in the series - inmates and staff - that are equally multi-dimensional.

The danger for writers of dramas like Oz, as well as of police procedurals and medical dramas, lies in the ever-present possibility (and one suspects the ever-present temptation) of sacrificing character development in favour of exciting plot developments. This happens in Oz as it does in many series that feature violent confrontation or life-and-death scenarios. I watched several episodes of the first season of 24 before giving up in boredom because there was so little development of the characters; we were jumping from one crisis to the next in order to maintain dramatic tension and thus hold the attention of the viewer. Jack Bauer was simply not an interesting character. The HBO series The Wire managed for all five of its seasons to avoid this problem, first because of the real-life experience of its creators which made the stories appear grittily real, and second, because the writing quality was always of the first order.

On the other hand, in dramas like Six Feet Under, another HBO offering, which rely for the most part on non-violent conflict, the conflict can become monotonous and the characters annoying if the tension is not relieved by humour or by scenes of redemption or reconciliation. This balance was one of the outstanding qualities of first four seasons of The West Wing.

So how does one write an interesting "priest drama"? How does the writer sustain dramatic tension while making the characters complex and thus interesting? First, the life of an urban parish priest, from all that I have read and the little that I have observed, is not dull. There is plenty of drama and plenty of conflict, both external and internal, to make for an interesting dramatic series. Second, every priest is an individual with a unique internal life, a unique way of dealing (or not dealing) with his own problems and the problems of the parish and its parishioners. Priests have relationships with family, with fellow priests, with the hierarchy, as well as with the members of their staff and congregation. These relationships are not always harmonious. A priest struggles with his faith, with celibacy, with loneliness, and with the common sins of pride, lust, and wrath. He faces the ordinary and extraordinary stresses of life - and death. There is much to explore here.

A parish is a community that is made up of all kinds of people with all kinds of backgrounds, personalities, motives, degrees of faith, and levels of participation in that parish community. The public and private relationships of these people with their priest(s) and with others in the parish can generate an infinite number of stories of conflict, brokenness, anger, redemption, tenderness, love. Some of these stories can be funny. The episodes can also include violence, sex, and of course death, but what will make the series compelling will be the very humanity of the characters in all their human weakness, their search for God and for the truth, their unfulfilled needs, and their growth in love.

The challenge is how to write this well. I do not feel that I have as yet met this challenge.

All thoughtful suggestions are welcome.

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