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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

On Writing: Does Adding More Characters Sweeten or Sour the Pot?

Okay, I'm taking a bit different approach today.  Obviously the majority of time at this blog is spent discussing writing in the form of the novel.  But I'd like to switch gears here and discuss writing in the form of series television and see if there are any comparisons we can make to writing books.

Of course I'm referring to the only TV show I watch--Hawaii Five-0, which just launched season 2 four weeks ago.  If you've never watched the show, I'll give you a very brief rundown:

Steve McGarrett, who spent several years in Naval Intelligence and several years as a Navy SEAL, takes over the Governor's task force to fight crime in Hawaii.  He is propelled into this role when his father is murdered by one of the terrorists he has been chasing around the globe for 5 years in the Navy.  When he returns to Hawaii to take over the task force, he learns his father had been independently investigating organized crime, including people within the ranks of HPD.  Throughout season 1, we see the development of a very strong, cohesive team of four, made up by Steve, his partner Danny, Chin, and Kono.  Each character is well established and strong in their own right.  By season 1's end, we learn that the Governor herself is involved in organized crime and Steve is jailed after being accused of her murder.

Enter Season 2.  The writers of the show deemed it necessary to add two new characters to the show.  A new female officer named Lori Weston and an old friend of the family and Steve's trainer in the military, Joe White.  Now casting aside my personal likes and dislikes (ie. the Weston bimbo is a horrible addition, though Joe is likeable enough (at least until last night's episode)), the question is, how many characters can you add to the pot of stew before the stew becomes watery and thin?

This is solid grounds for discussion as writers.  For TV, the problem is this--at most TV shows these days run 42 minutes.  That's not much time when you ALREADY had a team of four to begin with.  Now you add two more characters?  While I think the writers intended it to sweeten the pot, I think it has had the reverse affect.

Biggest reason?  The backbone of the show is Steve and Danny's partnership.  Thus far in season 2, there has been very little partnership time.  Big problem.

Second biggest reason?  The addition of Weston adds absolutely nothing to the show (it doesn't help that her character was introduced in a very cliched way).

Third, while I like Joe White, and I'm glad Steve FINALLY has someone around who appreciates the military side of things, he too, is serving to sour the stew.

The whole feel of season two is off.

So that brings us to application to our novels.  How do you know when you've got too many characters in the stew?  I'm not talking about surface level stuff like introducing too many characters in one chapter and people being confused because they can't distinguish one from another.

It is also far too simplistic to say "If you have X number of characters in your book, that's too many."  Tolstoy's War and Peace had countless characters, the story worked and has endured all these years.

It would seem to me that knowing what the backbone of your story is plays a critical role in your ability to determine how many characters are right for the story.  In the case of Five-0, I'm not sure CBS understands what the backbone of their show is (Steve and Danny partnership).  As a result, they seem to be staggering around a bit in season 2.  While the whole thread of Steve's family problems is marvelous and I want to see that story played out week by week, it also requires being balanced by his partnership with Danny and their work as Five-0.

When you're adding characters to your story, ask yourself, does the addition of this character bring real value to the plot or can this character's purpose in the story be absorbed by someone already in the novel?  There's nothing worse than a bimbo who wastes screen time, aka the Weston character on Five-0.  But it is just as easy to write unappealing, throw-away characters in our novels if we don't examine them closely.

So have you struggled with this in your writing?  In the end, did you keep the characters in question or get rid of them?


Patti Shene said...

Excellent post, Brenda.

I enjoy reading about your appreciation for Hawaii Five-O. I was an avid follower of the old show, but I've been unable to get into the new one at all.

I don't watch much TV at all anymore, unless it is a baseball game (yeah, I know, my Rockies have been out of it for a month!) or a Gunsmoke rerun.

I did catch the pilot for Unforgettable and have been following that. Other than that, I'm pretty much a reader.

B.K. Jackson said...

No one was more surprised than me that I liked the new Five-0, having enjoyed the old one. That's why I didn't start watching until very late in the first season.

I like that they found a unique balance of paying homage to the old show but also completely charting their own course. They drew on the old Five-0 with Steve coming from a Naval Intelligence background then went one better by giving this Steve Naval Intelligence AND Navy SEAL background.

Aside from the fact that they assembled a great cast of four (I especially love Steve and Chin), they've also done some great casting of secondary characters too. I have found several of them to be quite compelling in their own right, even if they only appeared on one episode.

Nicole said...

So Five-0 has that sophomore novel feel to you, Brenda? I'm wondering how the mesh will work with Lori and Kono and when the connection to Wo Fat and their "CIA" gal will be made.

I agree that you remove the prominence of Steve and Danny and you remove a special advocacy between them and the just right chemistry for the show. Hopefully, they'll get their legs under them for the season as a whole because the start has proved to be disjointed.

JMO concerning writing. I think it's wise for writers to have at least two novels completed before they even seek publication. At least. The growth that takes place between one and two and two and so on is usually enormous. And necessary.

B.K. Jackson said...

I agree with you, Nicole. Getting more manuscripts under your belt before you shoot for publication is very sensible.

All the more reason why it is frustrating, however, that now we have to do and worry about all that time consuming NON-writing stuff too. Sigh.

Some days I wonder if I'll ever be able to finish anything!