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Character Plausibility in Prose and on Screen


Over the last two years, The Professor and I have gotten really into police procedural TV. We’d been casual fans of NCIS and Criminal Minds for awhile, but when we got Netflix we started to systematically churn through shows like Numb3rs, Lie to Me, Sherlock, White Collar, Bones and most recently, Castle. We tend to like all sorts of flavors in the sub-genre: whether it’s comedic fare like Psych (the Professor asks me to note that she is less of a fan of this one), beyond-the-law like Burn Notice or Leverage, or forensics like Bones, we dig it all. But having recently completed the first season of Castle and simultaneously thinking about characterization for my current WIP, I had a bit of an epiphany:

The plausibility of plot is a conceit I will grant any story, provided the characters are plausible.

At first, this epiphany might seem obvious. But the more I’ve been thinking about it, the more I’ve come to realize it as a bone-deep pillar of solid writing. And that pillar supports all narrative media: prose, comics, film — anything.

Characterization at The Center of Every Story

Mystery — whether in film or prose — is always centered around a small number of crime fighters. Sherlock Holmes/John Watson, Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin, Don and Charlie Eppes, Michael Weston/Sam Axe/Fiona Glennan, etc. They are the heroes of the story, but more than that they are the window through which the plot is revealed. We find the mystery interesting for more than thirty seconds only insofar as we find interesting the heroes through which our experience is filtered.

Engagement with a character rests on that character’s plausibility. If we find ourselves calling bullshit on a character, then we won’t be engaged with them for long. This doesn’t mean that they need to be realistic: some of the best characters are completely unrealistic. Batman? Sherlock Holmes? People like that don’t really exist in real life. But we love them as characters because they are portrayed in such a way that we can conceive of a world in which they do. When an essential character fails this plausibility test, then the narrative’s ability to keep us engaged will be crippled.

A Study in Implausibility: Bones

I have an enormous problem with Bones. Granted, I’ve seen every episode that’s available on Netflix so far (I blame the Professor), but I have a real problem with much of the show’s writing. I find the show’s principal character (Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan) to be utterly unbelievable. I have no problem with her copious knowledge of anatomy, with the all-too-convenient pseudo-anthropological theory she espouses. Instead, my problem stems from the idea that someone so socially maladjusted can function at a high level in human society, and that a person unable to relate to a single living human could somehow write best-selling novels.

When the show opened, Bones was presented as being more Vulcan than Spock (a pop culture reference that she – purportedly a trained anthropologist – would not get). She was shown to have no ability to relate to other people, and only the most abrasive methods of communicating with them. The show took great pains to show us how outside-the-norm she was, and then offered us the hand-wavey justification that she gets away with it because she’s the best at what she does.

Sorry, I don’t buy it. There is no way that a person as socially maladjusted as the first season’s Bones could ever rise to a senior position in any field. Because doing so takes at least some modicum of people skills. Which we are clearly shown Bones lacks. Similarly, we are asked to believe that a character who is unable to frame her thoughts so that they are understood by other well educated characters can somehow write New York Times bestseller mysteries/thrillers. It is so completely implausible that — for me — it throws the rest of the show’s weaknesses into sharp relief.

Of course, the writers want to force character growth onto us by making the awakening of Bones’ empathy the show’s central theme (concretized through her relationship with her partner, Special Agent Seeley Booth). Quite frankly, Star Trek: The Original Series did it better, as did both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Rex Stout. To make a character like Bones plausible is a delicate balancing act, requiring the writers to make sure that she skirts the very edge of acceptable behavior. Rather than toe that line carefully, the writers just cranked the idiosyncrasy dial to thirteen.

From the first episode, I failed to engage with the show’s primary character, and the show was consequently skating on thin ice. As a result, all of the other (much better written) characters had to do double-duty. By the fourth or fifth season, I was engaged with the show’s secondary characters enough to keep me marginally interested. But because I found the show’s principal hero so implausible, its plot conceits jumped out at me for their silliness, sloppiness, or utter implausibility.

A Study in Plausibility: Castle

We’ve recently started to watch Castle, which in some ways combines aspects of Bones with Lie to Me. We’re only through the first season at this point, but already I am sold on the characters’ plausibility. Richard Castle is supposed to be a best-selling mystery/thriller author (like Bones). He’s also a single dad (like Dr. Cal Lightman in Lie to Me) who also has to take care of/put up with his mother.

What makes Castle plausible as a character are two facts: first, he talks like a lot of writers I know. He focuses on story, on fun plot twists, and tries to frame every crime as a story. I think every writer does that. Second, he is multi-dimensional. His daughter, mother, and ex-wives are all totally independent from the crime he is engaged in solving. And because those relationships are written (and acted) well, we find ourselves engaging with a character ostensibly as implausible as Bones.

We accept Castle as a writer because of the way he speaks, because we see him typing away, because of his attitude towards book launches and reviews, and because he plays poker with James Patterson and Stephen J. Cannell. The show does exactly what film must: it shows us that Richard Castle is a writer by completely incorporating the fact into his behavior.

We accept Castle as a human being because of the way he interacts with both strangers and those closest to him. We like Castle, even though he can be a bit of a jerk, because his relationship with his daughter and mother show us what his priorities really are. And that characterization is made all the stronger through the differences between Castle and his daughter.

The plots of Castle are no less hackneyed or implausible than those of Bones. But because we believe in the character, we’re completely willing to suspend our disbelief and give the show a passing grade on plot.

Plausible Characterization in Prose and Film

Prose and film achieve characterization in very different ways. Although, to be fair, they need not be that different. In prose, especially in today’s writing, we are given characterization through a combination of demonstrable action and internal monologue. Because the narrator can get into the protagonist’s head or otherwise show us a close view of events as-if through their eyes, we are given a ringside seat for both the external (shown action) and internal (experienced action) expression of our protagonist’s character. It’s tempting to say we don’t need to “see” the character’s emotional state expressed in their actions, because we can take a shortcut right into their thoughts.

Visual media (film, comics, etc.) fight the same battle with one hand tied behind their backs. On film, we can’t possible get into our hero’s head or heart. Even with voice-over, we are never able to experience the inner life of the character directly. Books can transport us into the character’s head, but film cannot. Visual media rely entirely on what is shown to communicate character. This is a many-person job: the screenwriter needs to give the words, the director needs to frame the shot, and the actor needs to communicate the emotion. All we know of a character is through what we see/hear them explicitly do/say.

In prose, there are a myriad of devices that we can use to facilitate that characterization. On one end of the spectrum, we can take a page out of Dashiell Hammett’s playbook. Hammett’s descriptions are a masterclass in conveying characterization solely through demonstrated action. We don’t go into his characters heads, we don’t know what they’re thinking. Like the other characters in his stories, all we know is what we see them do. And yet, Sam Spade and the Charles’ are perfectly plausible. We know real people like them, even if we don’t like them very much. It is not a coincidence that Hammett was a mystery writer, by the by.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Vladimir Nabokov, who keeps us locked tight in his characters’ mind and emotions. We experience the story of Lolita through the mind and emotions of the vile Humbert Humbert. But Nabokov manages this deft trick of characterization almost exclusively through his mastery of voice. Yes, we see Humbert’s actions. But we also see his values and thoughts and emotions as he undertakes them. He is plausible not because we know people like him (I would hope not!) but because Nabokov frames the narrative in perfectly unified way, making the character and his actions inevitable. It is interesting to note that Lolita is almost the opposite of a mystery or police procedural: the crime is past, the guilty man caught, and we are shown the story through his eyes.

I suspect that in prose, every story is a balancing act between these two methods of characterization. Likely no two stories will ever or should ever strike the same balance. But as I go forward in my current WIP (and revise the characterization that I’ve been phoning in for the last couple of chapters) I’m definitely going to be thinking about how plausible the characters are. And while I’m at it, I think I’ll start watching the second season of Castle.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. I can’t argue with your objection to the idea of Bones, socially maladjusted as she was, writing best-selling mystery novels. In fact, in a recent episode, the series writers explained it by revealing that, when she finished a draft–with its intricate plot and science-heavy exposition–her friend Angela would go through and suggest/add the human bits. Not a sufficient explanation, but a reasonable try. As for Castle, yes the idea of balancing his self-centered and impulsive persona with a deep love for his daughter was genius. And the explanation for why he is such a good hands-on parent is a completely believable one.

    I’ve always thought characters, the good ones anyway, tended to emerge full-grown like Athena from Zeus’ head. They’re a Cool Character that the writer then, hopefully, succeeds in filling out through background and action. That has, at least, been my own writing experience.

    January 31, 2012
    • Ha! I must’ve missed that little detail about Angela adding the human bits. Yikes.

      But you’re absolutely right: it is ultimately the writer’s job to fill in the background and action needed to flesh a Cool Character out. Although, on screen at least a director and the actors are equally important to that process (good writing can’t overcome bad acting, though the inverse sometimes works).

      February 1, 2012
  2. KR #

    Character plausibility is a huge issue for me. My family hates watching movies with me because I always end up dissecting them afterwards…even the good ones! I have not watched any of the shows you used for examples, but I can imagine the issues.

    February 1, 2012
    • There’s nothing wrong with dissecting a story: it’s fun, adds another dimension to its entertainment value, and makes us better storytellers ourselves. What’s not to like? Of course, not everyone gets the same joy out of it as we do, but when folks like that complain I usually just stick my tongue out at them. :-)

      February 1, 2012

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