Thursday, June 25, 2020

Defining Characteristics in The Good Place

I started watching The Good Place over lockdown - I know, VERY late to this one - and 25 episodes in, I started paying attention to the characterizations and how damn good they are. They're consistent, easily summarized, and at first glance, seemingly one-dimensional.

Except they're not, which is the magic of the whole thing. And where I started taking notes as a writer.

First, you've got Eleanor Shellstrop, played by Kristen Bell. She's self-absorbed, self-centered yet somehow she's ended up in The Good Place. Her focus for ALL of season 1 is not getting found out so she can stay in The Good Place. 

Chidi Anagonye, played by William Jackson Harper, is Eleanor's so-called soulmate. He's an ethics professor from Australia who lets Eleanor convince him to help her. Helping her means intense ethics lessons and a fair bit of lying, which doesn't really sit well with the ethics professor.

Tahani Al-Jamil, played by Jameela Jamil, is a do-gooder British socialite who believes she belongs in The Good Place. After all, she raised billions of pounds for charity. Why wouldn't she belong there?

Her soulmate is played by Manny Jacinto, posing as a monk who's taken a vow of silence. In reality, he's Jason Mendoza from Jacksonville, Florida and he's taken a vow of silence because the minute he speaks, you can't help figuring out how dumb he is. That sounds harsh, but, really, that's his thing and it's evident in every interaction he has.

The brilliant thing about these characters being so pigeon-holed, though, (for lack of a better word) is that the viewer can't help seeing how they grow and change. It feels like an "a-ha" moment for the viewer as well as the character when Tahani starts to realize that maybe she's not as fabulous as she thinks she is. Or Eleanor isn't as "bad" as she thinks she is. Through backstory/flashbacks, WE see the truth, but when the character sees it, it's kind of magical.

For me, thinking about this related to characterization in writing is useful in that it's forced me to think about my characters' defining characteristic. What is the thing that your readers will instantly associate with your protagonist? Chidi, for example, is paralyzed by decision-making, for fear of making the wrong one. Jason has a thing for hot wings from a particular bar in Jacksonville, and Eleanor's past life included a lot of free drinks. These things become so ingrained with the characters that the minute a scene shifts to a bar, the viewer can almost always expect an Eleanor scene.

I don't know how the level of repetition would play on the page, as opposed to a weekly television series (even if it is being binge watched), but it's a technique that I've started to recognize more and more in some of the books I'm reading. What makes it successful to me, both in print and on the screen, is that for every time it's stated outright, it's shown through actions three times as much. We see Chidi struggling to choose a flavor of frozen yogurt way more than he tells us he can't decide and he hates making decisions.

As a reader, I don't want to be hit over the head with anything, especially h a character telling me who they are or what they love/hate/stand for. But I am willing to be shown. Multiple times.

I'm curious if you, as writers, think consciously about this and how you weave it into your story so it's organic. So far, my draft is littered with thoughts about defining characteristics, but I haven't actually defined them, so I'm super curious what you think and how/if you approach this!

1 comment:

Kimberly G. Giarratano said...

I love The Good Place! It really is a model for character and storytelling. And plot twists! The thing about a show like this is it has breathing room and I'm not sure how much you're given in one book.

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