Going Gray: The Art of Creating Compelling TV Characters

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Protagonist v Antagonist. It’s almost always present in some fashion—especially in longer stories. Whether it’s Edmond Dantes vs his betrayers, Clarisse Starling vs Buffalo Bill, or the good guys in Lost vs—a smoke monster thing. The question is, though: what makes any of these particular characters intriguing? What makes us want to keep tuning in to see them?

So many shows die because people have no interest in watching them. Maybe it’s a dumb concept that turns them away or too many atrocious story lines. But people forgive all of this if they like the characters (which is why people watch the Walking Dead).

JRR Tolkien created a fascinating world with magic, elves, and several made-up languages, but no matter how good his writing is, his evils orcs are nowhere near as popular right now as Game of Thrones. George RR Martin will sometimes make us hate Daenerys or be appalled by Tyrion, and no matter how much we don’t like Littlefinger, we always want to watch him. This is because he gives these characters the shades of gray that they need. Vince Gilligan made us like Walter White and then hate him, but no matter what he was always intriguing. When Omar took on Stringer Bell, people took both sides because—fuck, both are such great characters!

Your good guys should not be all good. They need a flaw. They need something that we sometimes don’t like them for. This makes them human and, therefore, relatable. Look at Liz Lemon and her neuroticism, McNaulty and his alcoholism/ womanizing, TonySoprano and his—well the fact that he murdered a whole bunch of people. It’s these flaws (and sometimes huge flaws) that make us able to connect with these protagonists, put ourselves in their shoes, and root for them more.

It’s the opposite with the antagonists. If they have qualities we like, we are going to find them way more fascinating. When we catch ourselves liking a gangster because he has a code, or Gus Fring because he’s so damn smart, or the horrible Vern Shillinger from Oz because he’s sometimes funny (and JK Simmons rocks so hard) it makes us more invested because we understand these villains a bit more. We even kinda like them. We see a part of ourselves in them, and it’s scary and fascinating.

When these lines between good and bad get blurred, we recognize ourselves because at our best we’re still flawed and at our worst we still have redeeming qualities. And when we relate to characters, we’ll keep tuning in again and again to see more of them.

So when you take out that paint brush to create a character, make sure to get some of that sweet sweet gray paint.