True Detective – How to Develop Character?

By | 31st August 2018

True Detective, everyone spoke about how it was so different and revolutionary in terms of murder mystery. What do you think as the creator, you brought to the table as, it being completely different. I still don’t understand what was so different. You know, I really don’t. Like, two cops riding around in a car and they don’t quite get along? You ever seen that before? So it didn’t exactly reinvent the genre. On a surface level, it seems to follow the structure of every other prominent detective story. Two disgruntled cops who bicker like an old, married couple but have each other’s backs when it comes down to it, hunting down a mysterious serial killer, with many other genre conventions sprinkled in. What makes True Detective feel so fresh is its excellent character development, which functions as a masterclass in how to write compelling characters. Let’s start by looking at, “Intention and Obstacle”. Rather then kind of tell an audience who a character is, I like to a show an audience what a character wants. It all boils down to “Intention and Obstacle”. Somebody wants something, something’s standing in their way of getting it. This writing technique shows up in a few different ways. Characters can misunderstand another’s intentions, which itself presents a formidable obstacle. Other times one character’s intentions become the obstacles of another. And often at times the biggest obstacles the characters face, are of their own making. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that this format holds up for every character interaction on the show, even the seemingly insignificant ones. This is how you ensure that every character feels like a living and breathing person. We all have wants and desires, and we all face struggles in chasing after them, so that needs to be reflected when writing characters. That is what good writing looks like. Here’s showrunner, Nic Pizzolato discussing what bad writing looks like. What it looks like to me is, people running around, delivering information. I’m doing the typing and, you know, there’s obviously a plot at work here. But there’s no life. You know, when you’re writing comedy whether it’s like Wait a minute, is this people just standing around, telling jokes? Or are there actual human beings engaged in action? Right? And the humor arises out of that. So in my line it’d be like, wait a minute, is this just people walking around and trading information. Or it’s not yet, people living with each other, and against each other. I think a good example of a movie that did this poorly was Rogue One. It’s a fun movie with a lot going for it, as a huge Star Wars fan, overall I was pleased with it, but the only character I really felt anything for K-2SO, most of the sequences felt like they were put in to serve the purposes of the writer, and not the characters. Then again, this is director Gareth Edwards discussing his approach to filmmaking. The way I like to work is, you try and come up with visual milestones of like… Well I’d love to see this, and I’d love to see this, and I’d love to see this. I’m not sure how they’ll connect. And then what you do is, you create visuals of things that would be great. And then you try and find a way of linking them all in. This is a mistake, it can grant you some visually pleasing set piece moments, and Rogue One is full of them, but when the plot is motivated by a writer or directors aesthetic needs instead of character motivation, something just inevitably feels missing. Another example I would point to are the latest two Alien films. Where we’re expected to believe that these are the best and brightest that humanity has to offer, skilled professionals visiting and alien world for the first time, and they go and do stupid crap like this. Well, I often talk about what I consider to be the most important element of good writing. The mark of a really good storyteller. Which is that plot comes from character. You create a goal for your hero, which will eventually force that person to deal with their deep weakness. If you do that, the plot comes from the deep source of the character, and you’ve told a great story. All plot progression should come from character motivation and action, because as Nic Pizzolato states. “The only place anything ever comes alive is in character”. If we look back at the idea of intention and obstacle, I mentioned that a lot of the obstacles the characters face are self-imposed. This is what John Truby is referring to. These fundamental character flaws that will be corrected over the course of the story. They both have their share, but in spite of that, we know that they are good men. So we want them to succeed, but we don’t want to know that they’re going to succeed, we want it to be a struggle, and we want there to be the possibility of failure, it’d be pretty boring if we knew the outcome right out of the gate. I think this is why the show is structured the way that it is, we start off in 2012 and have most of the story served through flashbacks, starting in ’95 and working our way back to the present. Doing this means that we know some things for certain, firstly, that they’ve survived thus far, but we can also ascertain other information, like the missing wedding ring hinting at Marty’s coming divorce. So when the narrative shifts back to the present after Rust and Marty finish their interviews, everything that happens after that point is up in the air. This is a powerful writing trick to keep an audience on edge, because in earlier episodes there’s no real danger. No matter what sort of situation they find themselves in, we know that they at least survive. But that’s not the case for the final two episodes, all bets are off. They might live, they might die, the killer might get away, anything can happen because we’re not catching up to the timeline, we’ve caught up and are moving forward in to unchartered territory right alongside the characters for the first time in the whole season. So even though standard protocol for storytelling says that they’ll both be fine, we have every reason to suspect that they won’t be. Considering the anthology format of the show, there’s no reason they couldn’t have killed them both off, and I know that’s what a lot of people were hoping for, but that was never the point. Were there versions of that Episode 08 script where Woody and Matthew’s character died. No. And why not? Um, well, because I think the vision that created the story was dictated by the characters and how they behaved in the circumstances I had set out for them. And um, you know it was certainly something I considered. But um, the trajectory of their personal arcs and where the journey took them. It was much more interesting to me with them left alive, and altered in some way. Ultimately, what we all want from a finale, is to tie up any important loose ends, and to deliver a satisfying conclusion to the story. And that’s exactly what the finale gives us. But really what we want from a mystery is to be surprised, and I think the last episode gives us the biggest surprise of all. Two incredibly stubborn old men who finally change their ways. I could feel man. I knew, I knew my daughter waited for me there. Like I was a part of everything that I ever loved. Didn’t you tell me one time at dinner, once, maybe ‘Bout, you used to… you used to make up stories about the stars? I tell you Marty I been up in that room looking out those windows every night here Just thinking, it’s just one story…the oldest, light versus dark. Well, I know we ain’t in Alaska but, appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory. You know you’re looking at it wrong, the sky How’s that? Once there was only dark. Ask me, I think the light’s winning. I think the conclusion of the story is much more satisfying this way. They both confront their deep character flaws and correct them in the process of attaining their major goal, just like John Truby discussed. Every story is about getting characters from point A to point B. From the Dora Lang murder to Carcosa. The story is everything that happens in between, and as I covered, a good story has to come from the characters. This will happen organically through establishing a character’s intentions and obstacles, and putting them in situations where they have to make a choice. Like in episode five, when Marty kills Reggie LeDoux. It uses the character’s weakness to justify a necessary plot point. From a story perspective, we know that Reggie has to die, or he could reveal the secrets of The Yellow King three episodes too early. Having it play out like this satisfies the needs of the plot without betraying the character. This ability to disguise plot progression as organic development of a character’s motivations really is the mark of a great writer, and a great story. How it could take take a pretty standard formula that we’ve all seen before, and turn it into something that feels new.

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