In my last post about the story machine that is The Crown, I talked about the central conflict that can never be resolved (which The Crown has). Another thing that makes a show a story machine is great character dynamics. As I dive back into rewriting a pilot I’m working on — I’m trying to remind myself of both of these basic things: a central conflict that can’t be resolved (ever); and great character dynamics.
By character dynamics I mean a set of characters set up in opposition to the main character (or in an ensemble cast, in opposition to the character serving as the lead at the moment) — characters that have a certain relationship with the main character that creates continuing obstacles to the main character getting what she wants or generally messin’ with her (or him) — creating great conflict.
A quick example of this can be seen in the amazing show Friday Night Lights. Coach Taylor (a coach of a high school football team in Texas) is married to Tammy Taylor, and there is also a character that is a booster extraordinaire — Buddy Garrity. These two characters have a consistent relationship with Coach Taylor. Tammy always wants Coach Taylor to do what’s right morally, and Buddy Garrity always wants him to do what’s right for the team — to win. With this character dynamic, anytime a football player gets in trouble, or there is any conflict between the football team winning and Coach Taylor doing doing what’s right — Buddy Garrity will be in one of Coach’s ears, and Tammy will be in the other, both telling Coach what to do. What choice to make. It’s awesome. Two very distinct characters, in opposition to each other, push and pull the lead to do opposite things. It also externalizes the dilemma Coach is faced with because he fights with Tammy, and then he fights with Buddy. Because this show has an ensemble cast, there are a LOT of different character dynamics, so I’ll just leave it at this one example, but if you watch this show you’ll see long running consistent conflicts between the different characters.
Now, because I’ve used the word “consistent,” you might think boring. Stories are supposed to be full of surprises and twists, right? Yes. Gotta have lots and lots of “buts.” But as viewers, as an audience, we don’t get bored by these consistent character dynamics because the stories and situations keep changing. And I think part of us likes the consistency of character in this context. Also these consistent character dynamics create lots of story buts.
To give another example, this one from Homeland. Carrie, the main character, will do anything to get Abu Nazir (the bad guy) regardless of politics or rules. As her boss, Estes, says in one episode: “Is there no bridge you won’t burn Carrie?” The answer to this question is: No, there isn’t. And the beauty of this question coming from Estes is that it encapsulates their relationship. As a character, Estes is driven by ambition. Yes, he wants to capture Abu Nazir, but never by burning a bridge that might hurt his career. So any time Carrie wants to do anything that requires Estes approval or support — he undercuts her, limits her, creates an obstacle to her getting what she wants, so she has to find another way, or go against her boss, and face the consequences. Either way we see her struggle, and see how intensely she wants what she wants. The stories change, but this character dynamic never changes, and it makes the show a machine.
You can see these consistent character dynamics in Homeland, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Insecure, Atlanta, The Crown … every good show ever? I don’t know, I haven’t watched them all.
But wait, of course, the dynamics of a relationship can change in a TV show, but I think it might be analogous to turning a huge ship — you have to do it slowly, and you better have a good reason because it’s gonna change the direction of your show in a big way.
Photograph: Italian Fishing Boats, Sardinia, Italy.