On Balancing Characters

(***WARNING!!!  This post may contain spoilers for the show
The Breakout Kings***)

I’ve decided Netflix is evil.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my Netflix account, but it has this nasty habit of recommending me television series that were canceled early in their airing.  I watch all the episodes made, become invested in the plot line, the characters, etc., only to reach the end (and it’s always a cliffhanger) and learn that there is no more to watch.  I swear, Netflix does this to me on purpose.

Anyhow, my most recent devastation ala Netflix was a show called “Breakout Kings”. It aired on A&E from 2011 to 2012, and was a measly 23 episodes long.  The show was alright, to be honest I wouldn’t ever recommend it to anyone.

The plotline follows  two Marshals, one is a desk-jockey looking to prove himself in the field and the other lost his badge due to a momentary lapse of judgement and hopes to regain it through his efforts, as they head up a special unit comprised of three  convicts with useful expertise as part of a work-release program.  As an added bonus, they also have an agoraphobic, socially anxious, Marshal-academy washout as a secretary.

When prisoners breakout of jail, their unit, the self-dubbed Breakout Kings, is called upon to recapture the prisoners.  In exchange, the convicts get a month knocked off their sentence.  Think, Mod Squad, except no Afros or go-go boots, and they go back to jail at the end of the episode.

The show certainly had promise, the weekly criminals were often colorful with wily escapes reminisce of the A-Team.  A huge emphasis in the stories was placed on the criminal’s motivation for running, which often led to somewhat interesting twists and turns in the plotline.  And if that wasn’t enough of a hook, each of the main characters was set up to boast a score of personal demons, past and present, that should have made for a decent five season show at best.

Unfortunately, the show also had a lot of glaring flaws from the get-go.  Most of the prison escapes were over-the-top, cartoonish at best, for example, two men murdered an obese fellow inmate so as to hide in his coffin as a means of escape.  Then, as soon as criminals got out they all seemed intent to go on an immediate killing spree.  So not only would the show have you believe that dangerous convicts escape from maximum security prisons all the time, hell, it’s almost as easy as walking right out the door, but that every criminal locked up is a complete and total anti-social psychopath.

By episode two there was already a character swap. I imagine the character didn’t score high with the audience on the pilot, which wouldn’t surprise me, the one female convict in the group a grifter that uses her feminine wiles to charm men out of information for the case? Hell, she’s already in her skivvy’s episode one!  Show might as well advertise itself as “the new punching bag for feminists nationwide”. Either that or the actress found something better to do.  Her replacement character leapt as opposite end of the spectrum as possible, the street-wise daughter of a murdered bounty hunter that could take down men three times her size in a fist fight, and yet, still ends up being the show’s sexy eye-candy.

But the most glaring problem Breakout Kings had is actually a problem I think a lot of beginning, and evidently even professional, writers have, yet don’t realize or most times recognize: the characters were all extremely imbalanced.

What do I mean by imbalanced?

Stories are about balance.  Every aspect is about interacting the elements with one another in a fluid, harmonious way to create a satisfying story.  You have to weigh conflict versus solution, hero(es) versus villain(s), victories versus losses, internal versus external, main versus minor characters, setting versus atmosphere, dialogue versus action, so on and so forth, and don’t even get me started on timing.  When one element is off-kilter, slightly over or under-weighted, it throws the entire story off.

Breakout Kings had exactly 6 main characters, but half of them could’ve been removed from the show altogether, changing nothing else, and it wouldn’t have effected at least nine-five percent of the episodes.  Let’s take a closer look at the situation, beginning with our Marshals.

As already mentioned, one of the Marshals is looking to prove himself in the field while the other is a disgraced cop that’s lost his badge and is looking for redemption.  The characters are supposed to fulfill the good-cop/bad-cop dynamic but things fall apart as the writers seemed unwilling to let one of the characters’ tough guy, rebel-without-a-cause facade slip even slightly.  While the characters butted heads  in the first few episodes, they quickly agreed to both be bad-cop, which left this viewer scratching her head wondering why we needed the two of them.

The convicts were far worse.  Each was meant to bring a unique skill-set to the table, but in the end what it looked like was one ridiculous powerhouse character, and the two token minority characters: woman and a black guy.

Dr. Lloyd Lowry, played perfectly by Jimmi Simpson, is a brilliant behavioral psychologist and former professor with a two-hundred plus IQ, meaning he knows quite a lot more than just the inner workings of the mind.  He has a gambling problem, and he attempted to pay off his debts by selling prescriptions to college students, but one of the girls overdosed and he got tossed in the slammer for 25 years.  It becomes quickly apparent that his character was the golden child of the show, he cracked most of the cases, got some of the best scenes, the last season had an overarching plot featuring a villainous nemesis out to hurt him alone, and his inner-office almost-romance with the psychologically unstable secretary, Julianne, got spotlight treatment most of the series.  He was an amazing character, but it had devastating consequences for the show’s quality, as it was painstakingly obvious that the other characters were just along for the ride.

The other convicts were Erica, as already mentioned, the daughter of a slain bounty hunter who was raised in the game, and Seamus “Shea/Sean” Daniels, though they say he was a shot-caller, he comes off as little more than your run of the mill gangster. Erica hunted down and executed five of the six men who killed her father, but it was never proven, so she got time for weapons charges.  As for Shea?  They never really get into what exactly he was convicted of, though he states at one point Dr. Lowry is serving a longer sentence.  I suppose the writers figured he was a gang-leader, that should explain itself.

Erica proved useful in running down the bad guys.  They made note on more than one occasion how fast she is.  Which is sad in and unto itself.  What skill does this character bring to the team?  Oh, her, she’s really fast.  Fast?  Yup.  Fast.  She’s also really hot, so that should bring in like a huge audience of horny middle-aged guys, right?  Seriously though, this character suffered from “writers attempting miserably to create a strong female character syndrome”.  Apparently, in this show, there are two kinds of strong women: the smart woman who uses her sex appeal to get what she wants (there were several examples amongst the criminal escapees, not to mention, the first token female character that got kicked out after episode one), or the physically strong but emotionally cut off but still willing to have sex without attachments woman.  I wanted to like this character, but she boiled down to a hot-heated idiot.  The worse moments for her character came when the neighbor moved in downstairs.  She has a couple very brief encounters with him, then explains her work takes her away for long periods and she never knows when she’ll be around so they should sleep together when they have the chance, then she makes a really stupid choice that could destroy all the hard work she’d put in to getting out of jail just for this guy.  In one fell move the writers turned her into a weak girl held hostage by her emotions and willing to throw it all away for a handsome man.  Big shock, he turns around and betrays her.

Of the characters, Shea was the most frustrating for me.  The writers never seemed entirely certain what they wanted to do with him, he never served much of a purpose, and majority of the episodes he seemed unwilling to help the team despite agreeing to the terms the same as the rest of them.  His character should’ve been one of the most interesting and useful to the unit, with his alleged connections in the criminal underworld, yet the few episodes he had opportunity to showcase those skills, he was subverted by his girlfriend getting caught and his cover being sort-of blown.  Though he allegedly ran a large criminal enterprise that spanned across most of the country before being tossed in the joint, which would’ve taken incredible social aptitude and organization, he was often just there to demonstrate Dr. Lowry’s vastly superior intellect.  Unfortunately, he was the least developed of the characters, and it seemed almost despicable some of the ways the writers treated him, almost patronizing at times.  He had moments where I thought they were going to do something better with him, but they’d turn around and just shit all over it.

Writing with multiple main characters who each have their own independent subplots is difficult.  There’s a reason most writers don’t do it.  If you’re not careful, some characters rise up into the spotlight and others fall by the wayside.  Part of the problem for Breakout Kings may have been an attempt to set themselves apart from every other cop procedural drama out there by taking elements from every one and squishing them together to create a painful clusterfuck that was chaos to watch.  Lowry was a powerhouse character that solved most of the crimes and provided the best insights, it would have been fine if the point of the show was his character solving crimes, this Lecter-esque criminal with a heavy dose of Holmes, and just a sprinkle of Dr. Bishop.  But for obvious reasons (Hannibal and Sherlock were already made into TV shows), they didn’t want to go that route, so they threw in two others but did absolutely nothing with them.  Solution could’ve been to dilute Lowry a tad and bulk up the other two.

There’s a scene in which Shea is asked some math problem, nothing fancy algebraic with formulas and letters, but not something any person can typically compute off the top of their head, and he responds that he doesn’t know, he isn’t Lowry.  It might’ve served to make his character more interesting if he did know.  Part of running any business venture, criminal or not, is crunching numbers.  It would’ve added a different insight into his character that would’ve played into later episodes, when they were backpedaling on the shit way they’d been handling him by trying to make a point that he could’ve gone far had he applied himself to more legal avenues in his life.  Instead, they chose to make the moment about pointing out how smart Lowry is and Shea isn’t.

Similarly with Erica, there were definitely moments when they could’ve made her more interesting.  In one episode, one of the Marshal’s triggers a trap, a tripwire attached to a bombs detonator.  He arms the bomb and everyone scrambles in an attempt to salvage evidence from the area and figure out how to save him.  Erica’s background is that she was brought up to be a bounty hunter.  Her father had been a law enforcement officer before he went into bounty hunting, a lot of law enforcement were military prior, it would’ve been easy to explain if she had knowledge of explosives and disarmed the bomb.  Though I’m reluctant to advocate this fully, because the moment in the episode was a great character bonding scene, showing this haberdashery of characters acting as a team for the first time in the show.  Erica does have instances where she demonstrates the skills her background gave her, though usually the way it comes about is beyond stupid.  There’s another episode that puts the team in the Adirondak mountains tracking a psych-ward escapee, bonafide crazy stalker guy as he holds an innocent children’s show host hostage.  She holds on to the information that she knows the area well and has traversed them often.  It isn’t until after they bring another convict out of jail, a survivalist that knows the mountains like the back of his hand, only for the Marshals to be forced to leave him cuffed to the truck, does she reveal that she can play guide.  It’s made all the more stupid, as they’d made a big deal about how easy it is to get lost in the Adirondak mountains, how the trails are littered with booby-traps and animals, and you need to be an expert, and she volunteers to guide them, then they split into two groups.  What?  What happened to the mountains being dangerous and you shouldn’t wander off into them without a guide?  Then, of course, she couldn’t track for shit.

But that’s a whole other can of worms I’d rather not open.  So let’s get back to the topic at hand.  You might find that you’re current piece of writing is suffering from a character imbalance.  Or maybe you’re just worried it is, but you’re not entirely sure.

Balancing characters is easy.  If you know what you’re doing.

There are a few points  to address in a character’s development that will help you fine-tune their balance in the story and you can determine if you’re hitting these points by asking yourself a few questions about each character:

1) Identify your character.  Everyone needs an identity.  Think of a character as a potato, they need you to put a face on them.  What is the characters role in the story?  What do they bring to the table?  What are their advantages over other characters (skills, “perfections”) and what are their disadvantages (handicaps, flaws)?

2) Define.  Our importance is defined by our actions.  We direct our characters, so it’s up to you to make your characters important.  Is this character integral to the overall plot?  Does she help to move things along, or is she dead weight?  Should she be helping move things along but isn’t?

3) Qualify.  Some people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  We love our characters, but if they don’t belong, it’s better for everyone to let them go.  If you remove this character does it affect the story at all?  Could you get rid of this character or condense her and others into one?

4) Value.  First impressions are relatively meaningless the more time passes.  Sometimes, we don’t see the value of a character until we’ve had time to get to know them better.  Is one character seeming to gain more spotlight than another?  Is that character supposed to have the spotlight (main character), should she be sharing (one of many main characters), or should she not have the spotlight at all (minor character)?

Once you have the answers to these questions, you can start setting about to balance the characters out inside of the confines of the story.

Do you have a character that’s more perfect than the others?  Dink them up a bit.  Give them some handicaps or give other characters more advantages.  This is especially important in balancing heroes against villains.  You never want your hero to vastly outpower your villain, but you don’t want the opposite either.  They need to be equal matches.

Character slowing down the story or confusing the plot line?  Toss him.  Often times the best thing for a story is not to add but to delete.  Getting rid of a character is never easy, we writers develop scary irrational attachments to our characters, but you know what they say, if you love something let it go.  If it doesn’t come back, it was never meant to be in your story.

Do you have a character basking in the spotlight that shouldn’t be?  Reconsider if maybe that’s where they need to be.  I’ve done this before.  My story revolved around one character, but slowly and slowly another character – oddly enough, a minor antagonist – started slipping into the spotlight until finally the story became his.  Sometimes we start a project, thinking we’re in control, but in truth, the characters are the ones telling the story and they have less control than we do of the events that unfold.  You shouldn’t fight the characters, if one of them is the star – reluctant as he or she may be – then make that character the star.

Moral of Story: I need to stop watching television shows on Netflix.  Oh look, they have Freaks and Geeks….

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