Staying True to Characters: What I learned from 24 and Scandal

Nice slogan, unless you're Margot.

Nice slogan, unless you’re Margot.

I don’t watch a ton of television, but the television I watch, I really love. I simply fell in love with Scandal (after watching season 1 on Hulu), and I was super excited this summer when they started the 12-hour season of 24.

Well, 24 just finished its run and it was excellent. First up, it’s given me a comeback for when my children accuse me of being the meanest mother ever (I now say, “Have I ever cut off your finger or tried to murder you? Nope. Then, not the meanest mother ever”; Thank you Margot Al Harazi)

But, also 24 has reminded me that, when writing, you have to stay true to your character.

(spoilers ahead if you haven’t watched the most recent seasons of 24 or Scandal)

This season on 24, which is told in real time (every hour on the show is exactly an hour in real-time), Jack has to catch a terrorist named Margot Al Harazi, who plans to destroy London with hijacked US drone missiles.  Well, in episode 9, Jack catches Margot and stops the drones. He radios that he has Margot in custody. In a normal show with normal people, Jack would march Margot downstairs to authorities and she’d end up in a prison and go on trial for terrorist acts.  However, Jack is not a normal person. Margot makes some comment to Jack about future deaths being on his head, and he says to her, “The only death on my conscious will be yours,” and throws her out the fifth floor window of an apartment building to her death. And my first thought was, “No he didn’t.” My second thought was, “Damn, that’s Jack. He would do that.”

You see, what normal people do and what your characters do don’t always mesh. I think I heard this really clearly expressed by Shonda Rhimes, the creator and head writer of Scandal (and prior to that, she created and wrote Grey’s Anatomy). She was discussing this because of viewer reaction to an episode. In the interview, she said (and I’m paraphrasing) that you have to be true to your characters, even if it’s uncomfortable. She said this in relation to the character of Huck, an emotionally damaged ex-spy who enjoys torturing people. She said this because Huck tortures his colleague, Quinn. I remember watching the episode and part of me thinking, “What the Huck? How could he do that?” But, there was a part of me that answered, “Because he’s Huck. That’s who he is.”

Now, the Pollyanna in me would love to have seen Huck not be able to torture a person who was his friend, a person he seemed to be having romantic feelings for. Yet, that wasn’t Huck. And as disturbing as that episode was to watch, it rang true. It was a reminder that while so much of his circumstance had changed, Huck was still who he was at his core.

So, writers –and readers, too–have to remember, the characters are who they are. I’m not saying that characters can never change or evolve, but I think that evolution has to be genuine. And if a character doesn’t evolve in every respect, that’s OK, too (good for the viewer, bad for folks like Margot and Quinn).  No matter what the character does, it’s appreciated if it stays true to who they are. In the situations above, I think it helps that the characters have a blatant disregard for human life, because it makes the outrageous things they do feel perfectly normal for them.

So, any things your characters have done that you didn’t like, but felt were appropriate for their nature?

About RJ Crayton

RJ Crayton is a former journalist who now writes fiction. She's reported for the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, as well as the smaller publications Education Technology News and Campus Crime. She has two published novels, Life First and Second Life and blogs for Indies Unlimited and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. For exclusive content and first looks at her new work, sign up for the newsletter at http://rjcrayton.com/subscribe.
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2 Responses to Staying True to Characters: What I learned from 24 and Scandal

  1. “the characters are who they are. I’m not saying that characters can never change or evolve, but I think that evolution has to be genuine. And if a character doesn’t evolve in every respect, that’s OK, too” –

    Love the samples from TV! 🙂

    There’s more quality there than many folk give credit to, and the good stuff is not only worth watching, but definitely learning from. Everything from The Middle (ABC) to Endeavor (PBS, BBC).

    Thanks RJ 🙂

    • RJ Crayton says:

      Yes, completely agree with you Felipe that people sometimes underrate television’s story telling. Some shows do such an awesome job at storytelling.

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