Friday, January 28, 2011

You Gotta Have Character

A couple of posts back, I talked about the US remake of Skins and why it was important.  I stand by everything I said, but this morning I watched the first episode of the 5th season of the UK Skins and I want to talk about why the US version sucks and what that has to do with you as a writer.

It's all about character.  For those not in the know, every two seasons (or series as they call them in the UK) they dump the cast and start fresh.  So newcomers can always jump on board and get to know the new group of misfits.  This season began with a girl named Frankie.  She dressed like a boy and was bullied at her old school in Oxford.  She's trying to begin again, start new, but she's worried that no one will like her or that the past will repeat itself.  In this episode there is drinking and snogging and smoking and some drug use.  Along with trespassing and skinny dipping and theft and bullying.  But those things are there to titillate.  They're just part of the landscape.  The real stars are the characters.  The crazy diverse characters.

See, that's why the US version of Skins is failing.  Character should inform plot, not the other way around. The US remake is trying to be daring for the sake of daring, not because the characters demand it.  I feel that for the remake to be successful, they should take the concept but ignore all the characters that came before.  Start fresh, just like the UK version does every two years.  By mimicking, they're letting the plot lead the characters and not the other way around.

As a writer, that's an important lesson.  If you want to be daring or bold or "edgy" (which is such a bullshit word these days), then those things MUST flow from the character and not the other way around.  When Ollie gets high in Deathday, it's not because I wanted to be cool.  It's because it's his last day.  He's dying.  The opportunity presented itself and he went for it.  The plot flowed from Ollie.  An extreme example comes from The Marbury Lens.  It's one messed up book.  There's a lot of everything. Swearing, drinking, name calling.  But it all flows seamlessly from the characters.  It never feels forced.

The way to think about it is this:  If your characters were real, would they do the thing in real life that you're trying to make them do in your book?  If the answer is no, then don't do it.  I know some people will say that they're YOUR characters and they should damn well do whatever you tell them to.  They're right.  But then they won't be good characters.  Readers, especially teens, can smell bullshit a mile away.

Plot's important, I don't want to say it's not, but characters are the key, in my humble opinion.  And by the way, setting is a character.

1 comment:

  1. I was just thinking about this the other day after I read a review by an esteemed book reviewer who complained about how a character was being driven along by the plot, instead of her choices moving the plot forward.
    i totally believe in your characters being the impetus, and for that the choices they have to make need to by in sync with the character, which also need be real(istic).
    great post!
    and methinks i should give skins another chance, considering how many helpful points in characterization you can grasp from it. :)


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