TV Drama Script Writing: minor characters, ideology, and the illusion of depth

2 Jan

In my previous blog post for the TV Drama Script Writing workshop in Ethiopia, I promised to critique Robert McKee’s emphasis on the “inciting incident” and the “gap between expectation and result” as the basis for dramatic action. Although I agree with these two points, in my opinion McKee seems too interested in the authenticity of the story and not interested enough in its illusory qualities. As a result of his bias, the many examples of movies he talks about in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting are mostly straight dramas and suspense thrillers. He has little to say about comedies or about dramas that are self-consciously ironic. In fact, he has surprisingly little to say about humor or irony in general. He also has little to say about the problem of ideology and issues of race, gender, class, and nation when creating characters. The new movie Hugo, by the famous director Martin Scorsese, highlights how the art of making movies is more similar to the art of magic than the art of truth. My argument today is that complexity and depth are illusions. Minor characters play an important role in creating that illusion, as one purpose of minor characters is to give depth to the major character. And this relation between major and minor characters does not necessarily reflect the reality of the subject matter or the biases of the author. Rather, the TV or film aims to reproduce imaginary relations in our daily lives. Such is the ideological aspect of TV and film and the moral responsibility of writers and directors.

First, what do I mean when I say that depth is illusory? To give an example, I want to start with one of the most classic early films, City Lights, by Charlie Chaplin. The main story is about a poor, homeless tramp who falls in love with a blind flower girl. At the beginning of the film, she mistakenly believes that he is a rich man. Because he is in love with the blind flower girl, he tries to become the person that she thinks he is. Over the course of the film, he encounters a real rich man who is benevolent to him when drunk, but stingy and cruel when sober. You can watch the whole film by clicking [here], but below I’ve inserted a brief YouTube clip of the famous philosopher and film critic from Slovenia, Slavoj Zizek, talking about it:

What gives the tramp’s character depth and complexity? Is it the real details of his life? Is it his background as a member of what Karl Marx called the lumpenproletariat? Certainly, I think writers ought to do a lot of research to get background information for their characters, but in fact, we see very little realistic information in Chaplin’s film. What gives the tramp depth is not his real background. The details of his life are unimportant. Rather, what gives the tramp complexity and depth is what the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan calls misrecognition. The tramp is consistently in the “wrong place” at the wrong time — first sleeping on the new statue during a ceremony and then being mistaken for a rich man by the blind girl. It is this humorous case of mistaken identity and out-of-placeness that gives him depth. In other words, it is not true identity that gives a character depth; rather, it is the audience’s ironic awareness of mistaken identity and the way other characters react to him that gives him depth. The blindness of the flower girl is a metaphor for the matter of perspective and the instability of identity that is the meaning of the film.

Now let’s look briefly at the first scene of the third episode of NYPD Blue, which we watched for today’s workshop. (If you don’t know the show, you can read brief summaries of all the episodes [here].) Officer Janis Licalsi’s father walks in the door. He confesses to her that he is one of the cops indicted on corruption charges. This is simple enough. But what gives the scene its power and depth is when he then continues to misrecognize his daughter. He believes that she is innocent and good. He tells her that he is proud of her. In response, she falters and can not reveal to him that the mafia has already used her. She can’t say anything because she already knew he was a “wrong cop,” and she knows that because she has also become a “wrong cop” in order to protect him. Her silence and inability to respond to his recognition is what gives her depth. Other moments of misrecognition continue throughout the first act of the episode. Detective Kelly misunderstands Licalsi’s motivation. Later, Detective Sipowicz misunderstands his boss Lieutenant Fancy’s motivation and even blames Fancy’s African-American racial identity. The sub-plot of this particular episode is about a mother who refuses to recognize the truth that her two sons are drug addicts and have killed her next door neighbor while trying to rob her. Each different scene of the first act of this episode shows a different misrecognition. The misrecognition is the “inciting incident” that destabilizes the character and gives the story its drive. The second act develops each of these misrecognitions as the characters attempt to understand each other’s true identities. The final act is the reconciliation when the characters overcome their prejudices and come to terms with each other.

If we think of characterization as an illusion — more like magic than like truth — then one of the tricks of illusion is misrecognition. It produces dramatic irony and causes the audience to want the misunderstanding to be corrected and resolved. It also causes the audience to believe that there is more to the character than the surface. If one character misunderstands another character, and the audience is made aware of this misunderstanding, then the audience suspects there must be a lot more depth to that character. The audience never actually has to find out the details of that depth. The misunderstanding is enough to give the illusion that depth is there.

But what of the role of minor characters? In simple stories, minor characters rarely have depth. So, in the case of Officer Licalsi’s father mentioned above, his character is rather simple, and his function in the episode is to give her character complexity and depth. Hence, the complexity of the main character always requires several minor characters, and likewise, the major plot arc always requires several minor plot arcs. These minor characters and sub-plots help to establish the personality of the major characters. Sometimes a minor plot helps develop the major plot, but sometimes it is just a distraction that gets in the way of the major character and prevents him or her from pursuing the primary goal. However it functions, it should always give complexity and depth to the main story.

The danger is that the relation between major and minor characters is often an ideological relation. Which characters are given depth and which aren’t? Why is one character’s point of view more valued than another’s? We might think of Tom Stoppard’s absurdist play Rozencrantz and Guildernstearn Are Dead that re-tells Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the point of view of two minor characters. Or we might think of Robert Altman’s movie Gosford Park which at first appears to be a typical Agatha-Christie-style murder mystery about upper-class people at a country estate, but instead focuses entirely on the depth of the servants. If we go back in time to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in American literature, white male characters in novels, plays, and movies were always given the illusion of depth. Often black minor characters functioned only to give depth to the white character. As the Nobel-prize winning American novelist Toni Morrison argued in her book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, the black character usually functioned to make the white character look good. In other words, if the author wanted the reader to admire the bravery, intelligence, or kindness of the white protagonist, then the author included a cowardly, stupid, or selfish black character as a point of contrast or object of pity. Morrison argues that centuries of literature repeated such “misrecognitions,” and so such literary stereotypes contributed to a racist ideology. More recently, the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina made a similar point in his sarcastic satirical essay, “How to Write about Africa” that parodies the prejudices of American and European journalists. Likewise, in Ethiopia, what if all the central and complex characters of a story belonged to one ethnic group, and all the minority characters with little depth belonged to other ethnic groups? Or what if the protagonist was always upper class or always a male, and never poor or never a female?

A good TV drama will overcome such prejudicial stereotypes by drawing attention to the misrecognition through dramatic irony. As I mentioned before, one of the things I like about NYPD Blue is how it shifts perspective from Detective Kelly’s point of view to Officer Licalsi’s point of view. At the beginning of the show, Licalsi is a minor character who simply contrasts with Kelly. Feminist film criticism has often pointed out that female characters function in simplistic, sexist movies as nothing more than complements to the male protagonist. But eventually, because both Kelly and her father misrecognize her, she becomes a truly complex character who struggles with difficult ethical dilemmas. Her out-of-placeness is the “inciting incident” that drives the plot, and as a result she becomes the most interesting character in the show.

Another way to think about this has been beautifully expressed by the famous Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TED lecture, “The Danger of a Single Story.” I have inserted her lecture into my blog here:

Her lecture begins with a story about herself as a young writer trying to imitate European writers. Her lecture exposes a basic misrecognition about her own identity and the identity of “literature” itself. But in the context of television, it also reveals a danger. If the television show uses minor characters only to help create the illusion of depth in the major characters, then it risks producing a dangerous ideology that values some individuals and degrades others. Adichie emphasizes the moral responsibility of writers to tell the points of view of many different people. There are many ways to tell such human stories. One way is through dramatic irony that reveals misrecognition, as I mentioned above. Another way is that the “inciting incident” of a story brings two individuals together who normally don’t know each other. This is the basis for the famous movie The Breakfast Club which puts five high school students of very different backgrounds in the same room, and the audience watches them overcome their prejudices and get to know each other. Likewise, one of the appeals of the detective story genre is that the detective’s job is to cross social boundaries (e.g., class, race, gender, nation, religion, etc.) and discover the truth. Finally, another way to reveal misrecognition is through postmodern irony or parody that draws attention to the illusion of the dominant stereotypes and the artificiality of film in order to make space for alternative stories and minority points of view. The concepts “point of view” and the artificiality of the filmic “frame” and the “sound-image” will be the subject of the next workshop.

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