Sunday, February 19, 2012

Depth of Character: Masterpiece Theater's Downton Abbey

So you want to write good characters? Are you suffering from information overload from all those hundreds (if not thousands) of articles, books, blogs and what not with great tips about making your characters believable and real?

There is hope. Learn from the British writers of Masterpiece Theater Classics and have fun doing it. Learning the craft and entertainment at the same time, what could be better?

Downton Abbey is one of those Upstairs/Downstairs dramas the Brits are so fond of, set in the sunset of Empire and the time of extreme class distinctions. You know. 200 room country houses with a huge staff and Gainsborough paintings in the dining room. Where the silverware is laid out with a ruler. Servants who face poverty and disaster if they lose their position.

I won't go into details of the plot. It's quite complicated. What makes it work is the characters. What might be a ho-hum story with lots of tea and silverware becomes intensely involving. All this without large explosions and such a la Sherlock Holmes. WWI is approaching, so there will probably be future explosions, but I haven't seen that part yet.

Upstairs, devious women, sibling rivalry of the most hateful kind, flighty and highly intelligent people, an activist sister, an heirless master trying to deal with the issues of passing on the estate (complicated again) and four different women with a full range of conflicting emotions and ideas in a world ruled by men. Marriage for the daughters on everyone's mind. Changing times as women's rights become a factor. A dowager duchess control freak. A meddling aunt. The duties and restrictions of the upper class. And to cap it off, a middle class lawyer cousin from Manchester  (Manchester! Horror!) who is suddenly thrust into this unfamiliar world of extreme wealth by the untimely sinking of the Titanic and the deaths of the heirs presumptive. He's the new heir. And he doesn't even have a valet!

Downstairs, the new, mysterious valet to the master, immediately threatened by a scheming footman and m'lady's maid. A cook going blind, putting salt instead of sugar on the dessert. A ditsy, innocent country girl, cook's helper, coal carrier. The butler, who rules the servants, a man of honor and integrity and quite a lot of intuitive intelligence. The housemistress, who rules the maids and so forth. A maid who wants to improve herself, rise above her station and (Horror, Again!) become a secretary. The Irish revolutionary chauffeur, falling in love with the activist sister. And more.

A cast worthy of Shakespeare. Every single actor in this series is superb. Every actor is totally convincing. Every actor becomes the character in a way that illumines his or her motivation, desires, needs, flaws, challenges, mistakes, backstory.


I believe in the osmosis effect. Just as I think we learn most about writing by reading the work of authors we think are good and consciously observing how they do it, I think we can learn all anyone ever needs to know about character development by watching this show. Well, perhaps not all, but a hell of a lot.

Okay, you're settled in front of the big screen with a single malt or whatever, and you are wondering why I think this show is important for your personal craft of writing. The music begins, the credits roll. You have opened the writer's eye. Watch how you begin to form opinions about the various people in the story.

At first you know little, but infer much. The setting tells you that. Then you begin to see how people interact, what they are thinking about, how they behave. You are looking from a writer's eye. How the behavior of the characters speaks volumes about who they are. How the writers keep things back but let the viewer know something is hidden. How the story takes on life through the characters. How a sudden twist is completely unexpected and how it dramatically alters the course of the story. How the characters are affected by that. How you begin to infer more of where things are going and what someone might do and how you are surprised by what actually happens.

There's a good reason it's called Masterpiece Theater. Downton Abbey is an amazing production. From a writer's point of view, it's a graduate course in character definition and development. Watch it. I think you will agree.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Write Like A Champion

I saw an interesting interview program the other day, quite by accident. I normally don't watch TV, much less news and "personality" shows. I watch NetFlix. Right now I'm hooked on "Downton Abbey", an amazing piece of English television, a genuine visual novel masterpiece. But more about that in the next post. Suffice it to say that if you want to see how writing turns what could be a boring yarn turn into an amazing study of people, character and motivation, watch that show.

The program I watched featured George Clooney, Warren Buffet and Bon Jovi. Quite a mix. All very wealthy, all doing the TV bit to show you around their digs, and very nice digs they were, too. What I noticed was that Warren Buffet had a sign over the door in his office: "Play Like A Champion". That is a copy of the sign which hangs in the Notre Dame locker room. Knute Rockne. The Four Horsemen. All of that glory and tradition and, yes, championship. Success at the highest level.

Okay. Segue to Bon Jovi, who has only sold 350,000,000 records or so and earned a billion dollars doing it. Not bad for a kid from New Jersey, where he still lives. Not the same house, though. He took the TV audience on a little tour, including his recording studio. There on the wall was...

You guessed it. A sign that said "Play Like A Champion".

Maybe these folks are on to something. Clooney didn't have a sign but I think it's safe to say he's made it to the Champion category. If he can act like a champion, if WB can invest like a champion, if Bon Jovi can play like a champion, you and I can write like a champion. Champions, to be grammatically correct. That got me thinking about champions and what makes them so. What do champions do?

  • They never quit
  • They take all obstacles as challenges to be met and overcome
  • They never stop improving their skills
  • They never stop studying and learning
  • They never think it's "good enough"
  • They always believe in their ability
  • They see setbacks as an opportunity to get better at what they do
  • They listen to people who know more than they do
  • They seek coaching and direction
  • They give everything they have to their field
  • They stay totally focused
  • They are generous in victory and gracious in defeat
  • They never buy into the idea that it is someone else's fault if they fail
  • They always explore new avenues to accomplish their goals

I could find more thoughts about it, but you have your own. It's clear to me that becoming a successful writer means thinking like a champion. So I now have that sign right on my computer. Write Like A Champion.

It's a hell of a challenge.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Self-Promotion Treadmill: Part Three

I admit it. I'm a recovering Social Media addict. If you are an Indie writer I'll bet you know what I'm talking about. The mantra for self promotion chants a monotonous refrain of "Social Media" over and over. Sophocles would have loved it. He could have used it in a Greek chorus imploring the favor of the gods.

Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, Amazon forums, reader groups on sites like Goodreads and Library Thing. I'm sure there are at least a dozen more I haven't heard of, and I don't want to. Tell me something, please. Do you really want to read another blurb about the next greatest book in whatever genre, including mine? Do you rush to open a new window, look the book up and buy it? Do you follow all the links, the blogs, the websites seeking your notice?

Be honest, now. No? That's what I thought.

Don't get me wrong. Some folks have learned how to use sites like Facebook to great advantage. They work hard at it, they spend time and money, they garner fans. They even sell books. I say, God Bless Them. But as a recovering social media addict, I know it's not for me, except in severe moderation.

Much of Facebook seems like endless twaddle to me (I've always wanted to use that word somewhere. Twaddle. Has a nice ring to it). To be fair, FB has a couple of very good writer groups I check into now and then. There are also one or two forums on Amazon that I enjoy, mostly composed of writers who have more to talk about than just their books. I follow one or two groups on Goodreads, for the same reason. I enjoy the virtual community, the sense of mutual support.


I've been reading 11/22/63 by Stephen King. His protagonist goes back to 1958, the year I graduated from High School. I remember 1958 quite well. King's book is in part a paean to a vanished time of real food, cool cars, no cell phones and no internet. It's also about racism, bigotry and Jim Crow. And because it's a Stephen King book, it's building a darkening tide of weirdness and fear. Pretty good, SK.

The point of my digression is that now isn't 1958. Now is constant bombardment from every direction by a massive overload of useless information, much of it through social media. It takes a lot of effort (WARNING: cliché ALERT) to sort the wheat from the chaff. Maybe too much effort, if you want to be a writer.


There's no denying some of those links and articles and blogs are informative, interesting and cool, but the Social Media internet is a voracious siren. It's time to tie ourselves to the mast and let the rocks slip by. We step ashore at our peril, if we want to focus on our writing. Without the writing, there would be nothing to self-promote anyway.

I have decided that about one half hour a day is the maximum amount of social media drug I'm willing to dope myself up with. Maybe someone should start a group on Facebook called Social Media Anonymous...but that might be addictive.