What The Good Wife Does Right

No, no, I’m not offering you marriage advice. I’m talking about the CBS legal drama starring Julianna Margulies.

Does it strike you as odd that I, the fantasy lover and writer, find this show better than Game of Thrones (based on a series of books I adore) and Castle (about a mystery writer and starring Nathan Fillion, for crying out loud)? I find it a little strange, too.

But the day-to-day writing in this show is phenomenal, and the actors take that magic and turn it into reality. The Good Wife is, in my humble opinion, the best show on TV right now. So what is this show doing right?


image via TVOvermind

1. It has a realistic but well-positioned character main character. When we first meet Alicia, the only things we know about her are that her husband is a cheating scumbag, she’s not divorcing him, and she’s going to support their family by working as a lawyer while he’s in jail. Beyond that, Julianna Margulies’s performance is so controlled, so restrained, that she’s almost a blank template in the pattern of Bella Swann. She is the good wife, the stereotypical wronged politician’s wife, which is interesting, but it doesn’t tell us too much yet.

Lucky us, though, the writers are smart enough to give her a character arc that suits her position. Part of the show’s plot is her growth as an individual: she wins the competition for a permanent position at her law firm, she starts a relationship with an old flame, she makes new friends, and she builds a new life. She has flaws, too: she overreacts to her control-freak mother-in-law’s scheming, she has an extramarital affair with her boss, she has trouble controlling her teenage children. She’s human, in other words.

image via Buddy TV: He is a pretty charming boss.

2. No character is purely good or purely evil. (With the possible exception of dirtbag Chris Noth, who isn’t exactly evil; he’s just a politician.) Alicia, our heroine, has an extramarital affair with her boss—not exactly a smart move, even if your husband slept with prostitutes and got thrown in jail for corruption as state’s attorney.
The boss Alicia sleeps with may or may not bribe judges: he also may or may not hire investigators as henchmen. The mercenary political consultant Eli Gold (played by the truly delightful Alan Cumming) has a heart beneath his well-dressed, uncaring facade, and even develops a crush on the ingenue illegal immigrant he first ruins and then sets out to help. Every character has a hard side and a soft one, and seeing a different facet in every episode makes for a great viewing experience.
3. The dialogue sparkles. Remember in the “oughties,” when everyone talked about The West Wing and how it had the best dialogue ever? Well, The Good Wife‘s is just as good. Check out this exchange between Alicia and her brother, Owen:
Owen: Afraid of the Alicia stare.
Alicia: The what?
Owen: You know. (makes a glacial glare)
Alicia: When have I ever done that?
Owen: When someone doesn’t live up to your standards.
Alicia: You make me sound like such a bitch!
Owen: Noooo. Proper.
Alicia: Ow!
Owen: Are you going to leave him?
Alicia: Owen, please don’t.
Owen: He’s two-faced.
Alicia: Everyone’s two-faced.
Owen: You’re not.
Alicia: Yes, I am.
Owen: Then you’ve changed.
Alicia: No. Issues got more complex. And I grew up.
Does that not sound exactly like an exchange between a brother and a sister? You can feel the history and, even out of context, pick up something about each character’s personality.

image via FanPop: This guy said "fellating Santa."

The show is full of one-liners, too, especially from Eli Gold. For example: “[It looks like] you fellating Santa. I have to be blunt, sir, because that’s how TMZ is gonna report it, Fox is gonna repeat it, and Jon Stewart is gonna finish it. ‘Here. Comes. Santa.'”
You get the idea. 
So, bottom line? Interesting, well-positioned main character (also known as great concept); well-rounded characters; great dialogue. Books aren’t TV episodes, but there’s definitely something to take away.

What do you think, readers? Do you watch The Good Wife, or do I need to harass you into watching the way I did my mother? (She loves it now, btw.) What other TV shows can teach us about writing?

Freudian Fridays: Daddy Issues in Urban Fantasy

Did you know that if you search Wikipedia for “daddy issues,” it’ll auto-redirect you to Electra complex? Neither did I. Now we both know.

That very Wikipedia article says,

The psychodynamic character of the daughter–mother relationship in the Electra complex derives from penis envy, caused by mother, who also caused the girl’s castration; however, upon re-aligning her sexual attraction to father (heterosexuality), the girl represses the hostile female competition, for fear of losing the love of her mother… The girl’s penis envy is rooted in biologic fact, without a penis, she cannot sexually possess mother, as the infantile id demands. Resultantly, the girl redirects her desire for sexual union upon father, and thus progresses to heterosexual femininity, which culminates in bearing a child who replaces the absent penis

If sexual competition for the opposite-sex parent is unresolved, a phallic-stage fixation might arise, leading a girl to become a woman who continually strives to dominate men (viz. penis envy), either as an unusually seductive woman (high self-esteem) or as an unusually submissive woman (low self-esteem).

Whoa. I’m not going to talk too much about the “actual” Electra complex, because that Freud was a wacky dude, I’m not a trained psychoanalyst,  and you just don’t see that much blatant Daddy-desire or penis envy (Buffy penis-monsters aside) in urban fantasy.

I want to talk about the plain-and-simple father issues of female protagonists in urban fantasy novels. The strong, self-sufficient female character, either an orphan or just independent, is a trope in fantasy novels, and a good one at that, but so often those strong women come with baggage. That’s part of what makes them interesting. No one wants to read about a perfect hero solving every crime. That’s just irritating.

However, that baggage often comes in the form of unresolved issues with her father. Maybe he abandoned her when she was a kid, maybe he’s a Bad Dude, maybe she loved him and he died, or maybe he’s just not who she thought he was.

Why? Well, parents are people we’re supposed to trust above anyone else. They watch over us at our most vulnerable, they shape us into who we will become, and they should be there to cheer us on when we’re an adult. Violation of that trust is a trauma, one that shapes all future actions and can even cause a person to try to prove herself worthy of that love—or to try to prove she doesn’t need it.

Additionally, withdrawal from family and community is a part of the hero’s journey. A hero isn’t a hero unless she can stand alone. Perhaps part of the reason female main characters frequently have father issues is because a woman’s father is “supposed” to be her protector: if a woman has to fight her battles without that protection or, worse, has to fight her battles against her father, that’s more dramatic, traumatic, and every -atic in between.

Let’s look at a few examples. We’ll talk about these girls in detail in the next few weeks, but I want to give you an overview before we start. (WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS)

Buffy: Buffy’s a tough chick, but she has continual fears of abandonment by her father, fears which eventually come true. Her nightmares reveal that she’s afraid her mom and dad got divorced because of her and that her dad doesn’t love her the way he should. She gets attached to Giles, expecting him to pick up some of the adult-slack after her mother dies, and becomes angry with Giles for refusing. Buffy’s a classic case of daddy issues, but she also shows that emotional baggage does not break a woman.

Rachel Morgan: Rachel thinks her dad died when she was a kid, and she spends a lot of her time trying to live up to his legacy. Later, of course, she finds out that he was not exactly who she thought he was and he engaged in illegal research, tinkered with her genes to keep her alive, and (BIG SPOILER), was not actually her biological father. Her real dad is a man she likes and admires, but—the horror—she was actually a little smitten with him before she discovered he was her dad!

Kate Daniels: Okay, Kate’s daddy issues are totally warranted. Her dad is the Big Bad, the chief necromancer, the Sauron of this universe. She was raised by a foster father to know that someday she is the only one who can kill her true father and save the world. If that won’t mess a kid up, what will?

Savannah Levine: Savannah actually (accidentally) killed her dad, who was also a big bad. That can’t be good. Savannah’s actually a fairly new POV character in Women of the Otherworld, so it will be interesting to see how her past will effect her actions in future books.

Dante Valentine: Dante’s parents abandoned her when she was born. Her social worker/father figure was killed in front of her by a mugger when she was an adolescent. Her daddy issues don’t manifest quite as obviously as some of these other girls’, but she has severe trust issues and ends up dating a demon.

So there you have it. Lots of women with lots of issues. (Don’t worry—we’ll get to the guys soon enough.) This is just an introduction, too. On future Fridays, we’ll look at why these women have these issues, and what it adds to their character development.

Here’s your part, though: Can you think of more women with daddy-issues in fantasy novels? What do you think these issues add to character development?

The V-Word

I’m talking about verisimilitude. What did you think I meant, you big weirdo?

Yesterday we talked about what makes a good character according to the Gospel of Jim. We skimmed verisimilitude, though, because this one is tough.

Jim says,

V-factor is the second most important element in creating interesting characters. The most exotic character in the world becomes nothing more than an annoying cartoon figure if he doesn’t behave in a consistant and believeable manner. (*kaffkaff*JAR-JAR*kaffkaff*)

When you are writing your characters, it is absolutely critical that you convey to the reader the sense that your character is a whole, full person with his own life outside the purview of this particular story. This is a task that will take a little bit of time, as your reader follows your character around and sees what is in his world.

So this is part of what I meant when I discussed world-building. People say the devil is in the details, but for a writer, the world is in the details. You have to create a character who exists and has existed in the world you’ve built: your protagonist will have a history in this world, and she won’t bat an eye at the firebats that populate the trees in her backyard. While you may want to describe the firebats in great detail, down to their glowing red ember-eyes, resist that temptation. The more you explain, the more it sounds like you’re trying to convince yourself.

Jim goes on to say that the majority of verisimilitude-creation gets done in scene sequels.

The single most important technique for doing that is through showing your character’s: 1. EMOTIONS 2. REACTIONS and 3. DECISIONS. When something happens in your story, a character with a decent V-factor will react to it. The reader will see his emotional reaction played out, will gain a sense of the logic of a question or problem, and will recognize that the character took a believeable, appropriate course of action in response.

Characters must make rational decisions, and those decisions will be informed as much by their history in your world as by the character’s individual traits. A woman raised in a society that oppresses women will not rebel against that society without some angst and fear about bucking her heritage. Even if she’s a fiesty chick, she’ll still feel some trepidation for going against her upbringing.

Verisimilitude, exaggeration, and exotic position do overlap and can create some friction. A woman raised in that misogynistic society who does not rebel won’t be interesting to read about. To create an interesting character, you need to set her apart by giving her the desire for change and the ability to make a change.

Rory the Nurse

Let’s get more specific. Do you watch Doctor Who? If you don’t, you should. It’s a joy to watch, especially if you enjoy fantasy. Anyway, the Doctor has a variety of companions who tag along on his adventures and act as the viewer’s surrogate, giving us someone with whom we can identify. Rose Tyler is a well-loved companion who may lack a bit on the verisimilitude side, while Rory Williams is a more ho-hum companion who has a high V-factor.

Rory reacts like most of us would: he’s terrified, he bumbles, he’s unsure. A normal person put onto the TARDIS and dealing with scary aliens who erase your memory would probably react similarly. Unfortunately, Rory’s not much fun to watch because he’s too much like us. Viewers and readers like to watch someone special. Otherwise we’d just play The Sims all day instead of reading or watching fantasy.

Rose the Badass

Rose, on the other hand, takes it all in stride. She’ll reason with a Dalek and hug a crying alien. A normal person probably wouldn’t do that. Rose has the V-factor, though, because she’s a normal girl working in a shop and living with her mother. She’s saved from wild improbability by her basic normality. I suspect she’s such a popular companion because the writers struck the perfect balance of verisimilitude, exaggeration, and exotic position.

That’s the trick. You have to balance reality with fantasy. If you play up one of the factors that go into building a character, you’ll push that character too far in another direction.

How do you give your characters verisimilitude? Can you think of some popular unbelievable characters?

Imaginary Friends

I refer to my characters as imaginary friends. They are, aren’t they? I spend more time with them than I do with plenty of my real-world friends. I spend my work hours with them, so they’re also my coworkers. I guide them through the worst times of their lives, and some of them have seen me through some rough times, as well.

It’s a pretty twisted relationship, though. I make them do things that won’t end well for them. I destroy their relationships, their careers, their homes. I’m not one for the too-easy happy ending, so things rarely turn out well for them. I refuse to give them a break.

But who are they? Where do they come from? How have they become real people to me?

Jim says five things help you build interesting characters: exaggeration, exotic position, introduction, verisimilitude, and empathy.

Exaggeration and exotic position are two ways of making your characters stand out. I’ll put my current protagonist on the pedestal (which is how she likes it, anyway): Mitzy Morgan is exaggerated both in her addiction to alcohol and in her spoiled-brat ways. Her old money snobbery and her alcoholism are exaggerated, sure, but she’s fiction: the exaggeration makes her amusing.

Her exotic position is not her job as a detective. Nope, she’s a detective who got transferred from her former job because she… well… I can’t give everything away, now can I? But she also has an exotic position because she has a rare magical talent: she sees magic. This gives her a leg-up in investigating, but it’s also a nuisance because people expect a lot from her.

Introduction is less about the character and more about you. Jim says:

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. When your reader meets any given character for the first time, it is critical to make sure you get the bare bones of your character into his head immediately. By establishing your character firmly, you’ll make the whole process of virtual-story-world-creation move more quickly and easily. There are multiple techniques for planning a strong introduction, but I’m only going to hit on the strongest one: CHARACTERISTIC ENTRY ACTION.

A solid CHARACTERISTIC ENTRY ACTION consists of introducing your character to the reader by bringing him into the story in the course of an action which clearly, sharply typifies who and what he is.

I introduce Mitzy on the job, looking for missing magic around the body of a girl drowned in a bathtub full of expensive martini fixings. Exaggerated? Sure. Memorable? Probably. But it ties all her characteristics and a couple of plot points together right from the start.

Verisimilitude probably deserves its own blog post. I’m going to skim this one for now and just leave you with Jim’s take:

When you are writing your characters, it is absolutely critical that you convey to the reader the sense that your character is a whole, full person with his own life outside the purview of this particular story. This is a task that will take a little bit of time, as your reader follows your character around and sees what is in his world.

The single most important technique for doing that is through showing your character’s: 1. EMOTIONS 2. REACTIONS and 3. DECISIONS. When something happens in your story, a character with a decent V-factor will react to it. The reader will see his emotional reaction played out, will gain a sense of the logic of a question or problem, and will recognize that the character took a believeable, appropriate course of action in response.

Mitzy gains verisimilitude in how she deals with the situation: as the plot builds and situations get worse, she drinks more. A low point for her is when another character forces her to sober up. But, like I said, we’ll come back to verisimilitude in another blog post.

Empathy is the key. If you can’t win a reader over to your character’s side, you are, in technical terms, screwed.

I like unlikable characters. I think a Scarlett O’Hara is much more fun to read than a Melanie Hamilton. We all love Melanie, but a book about her would be pretty dull. Unlikable characters need to have redeeming traits, though, otherwise readers get turned off to them pretty quickly.

For Mitzy, it’s the vulnerability she has from feeling she doesn’t live up to her role models’ expectations. For Scarlett, it’s her tenacity and passion.

I don’t want to get sidetracked too far, but Katniss in The Hunger Games didn’t strike that much empathy in me, and that’s why I only read the first book. She’s tough, sure, and I admire her for going to such lengths to save her sister. But she uses people right and left, and she’s wishy-washy about knowing her own heart.

Empathy is tough because it depends so much on your reader. Obviously other people empathize with Katniss, or the books wouldn’t be so popular.

 If you do your job, you will create a sense of empathy in your reader for your characters. This is what makes people burst out laughing while reading. It’s what makes readers cry, or cheer, or run off to take a cold shower.

Like V-Factor, empathy takes time to build and it relies heavily upon the skilled use of sequels. But if you can get the reader to this point, as an author, then you WIN. Big time. This is the ENTIRE GOAL of all this character work, because the reader’s emotional involvement is the single most important factor in how well your story is going to fly.

So, there you have it. Exaggeration, exotic position, introduction, verisimilitude, empathy. What works best for you when designing the perfect imaginary friend?

Why Did I Like This Character Again?

The first blush of romance has faded. You’ve been spending hours together every day. You thought you loved each and every one of this person’s quirks. Then suddenly you realize that the person you’re with doesn’t like peanut butter or Buffy and do you even know this person at all?!

I’m talking, dear readers, about the moment when you realize you don’t like your main character.

My fiance likes to joke that someday my distinguishing characteristic as a writer will be my unlikable female main characters. Eva, my first protagonist, is a tough-as-nails thief and con artist, cast in the mold of Scarlett O’Hara (whom I love, incidentally). Drew, as he reads this first book, often feels that Eva is unlikable in the extreme. A bitch, even.

My current main character, named Mitzy Morgan, is an alcoholic detective in an alternate universe San Francisco, where everyone has a magical talent. She’s a privileged white girl with a special talent, who has never had to work hard for anything, and she’ll do just about anything to prove she deserves what she’s got. She is a bitch.

Today I realized that I’m sick of her.

I mistook being amused by her for liking her, and the amusement has worn off. She’s bitchy, she’s moody, and sometimes she’s just a pain to deal with.

In complaining about this, I realized she also lacks any of the depth most of my characters have. She never surprises me by taking the plot where she wants it to go. She does exactly what I tell her to, but she complains about it along the way. She’s a puppet, essentially, and I’m tired of making her dance.

What to do? I realize this is a pretty common NaNoWriMo problem. I, however, adopted an unconventional method of solution.

I whipped out the trusty tarot deck.

Some of you may wonder why tarot is a category on this blog, and someday I’ll write in detail about why the tarot is a helpful tool for writers. Today I’ll just tell you that the imagery and characters of the tarot are highly archetypal, and sometimes thinking with a different part of your brain can shake up your writing process.

After all, I came up with this plot using a simple tarot game.

Anyway, I shuffled the deck and said, “Oh mighty tarot deck, tell me why I should like this character!

Okay, that’s not actually what I said, but I did consider that question when looking at the imagery. I came up with the following list of personality traits:

  • passionate
  • loving spirit
  • “dances her dreams and desires out loud” — this is a quote from the booklet that came with the deck. My translation: She’s an open book. You get what you see.
  • Vulnerable
  • Finds opportunity everywhere
  • Tenacious
  • Independent
  • Capable of clear-headed observation
  • Naive, in that privileged white girl sort of way
  • Lives life — really lives it

There are some redeeming characteristics in this list, aren’t there? Obviously, this isn’t the full Mitzy, but these are some things that I already knew about her, and failed to develop in the book. I’m doing her an injustice by playing up her amusing–and unlikable–characteristics.

Yes, the third act of the novel will be her redemption, but something has to carry the reader into that third act. I’ve now plotted some additional scenes that will show these traits and give her the depth that she needs.

The point is, I’m not dumping her. I realize that our honeymoon period is over, and it’s time to start appreciating those quirks that have started to put me off.

So, readers, I ask you: Have you ever realized you disliked your main character? How did you solve that problem? What are some unlikable characters that you actually love? (Scarlett O’Hara and Carrie Bradshaw both spring to mind for me.)