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Using Character to Reveal Dramatic and Universal Truths in TV fiction.

Have all TV writers caught up with Ozark Season 3 by now? Wow. That is hands down my favourite show of the last couple of years. The characters are so strong, the location evocative and the action and plot are always moving in unexpected directions.

It’s not just me; the reviews have been sensational. There’s so much to study in that series.

This season it was Wendy’s brother Ben who provided the most emotional journey, harrowing actually, I can’t get it out of my head.

And as I finish the next draft of my script, I’m thinking of the emotional highs and lows that make up the story from beginning to end and what role the characters have in bringing truth to the narrative, maybe not in terms of the plot but something more thematic and emotional.

Having a character who challenges the belief system of the world or protagonists is a way of adding texture to the story, especially in the crime and thriller genre’s where we are often on board with criminals or unsavoury characters. So much so that we find ourselves gunning for people’s whose actions we would find disgusting in real life. That’s storytelling, right?

A character like Ben isn’t a protagonist and doesn’t easily fit into any of Scott Myer’s five archetypes. He’s a bearer of truths that would otherwise be difficult to write into the narrative — especially three seasons along in a show where we’ve become desensitised to the grimness of the world.

Is there room in our stories for outlier characters; dark souls of the night to add emotional truth to the worlds that we create?

Below I look at four such characters and their relationship to plot and theme lines.

Ben from the Ozarks

Click here for the IMDb profile.

Season 3 opens with a scene of Ben teaching a class of teenagers. Who is this guy we’re wondering? We haven’t seen him before, but the incident is a taste of what’s to come. He reacts with justified horror to a picture a student receives, but his handling of the situation quickly flies into violent, uncontrollable anger.

As he turns up in the Ozarks he takes us on a journey; sometimes his innocence and desire to fix the world around him works, like when he follows Ruth with the drone to look after her and ends up protecting her from death. But as his understanding grows that everything around him is linked back to a Mexican drug cartel, he becomes a threat to the Byrds.

Ben is Bi-Polar and faces the agony of needing medication to regulate his behaviour but not being able to live emotionally while on the meds truly. There’s a harrowing scene when he’s sectioned in hospital and medicated; his love, his feeling, his emotion, all taken callously from him. His howl sounds like the noise of a wounded, trapped and defeated wolf in the wild.

He rages at Helen; the cold legal face of the cartel and he rages at the Byrds but the big question to them is why aren’t they raging too? And us as an audience; why are we accepting this world as we see it, even if it is fictional.

Omar from The Wire

Click here for the IMDb profile.

Everybody’s favourite character. Omar represents a very different character to Ben. He’s savvy and sees the realities of the ghetto world, but he doesn’t bow down in fear to the world. Omar matches force with force but sticks closely to his own set of rules. He plays the game.

The Wire is more of a character ensemble piece than The Ozarks, with the city of Baltimore and it’s a multitude of competing forces being more of a central theme.

With that in mind, Omar has trickster characteristics, but without the main character, it’s hard to align these character archetypes to a protagonist. Yet, he has a relationship with the city of Baltimore. He’s an outlier. When he bursts onto the series in scene 3 nobody has heard of him; not the police, not the incumbent gang on the street,

He sees what the police, on another stakeout, cannot. He achieves with a day of watching the projects and writing down movements what the police fail to do with an orchestrated raid.

As the war escalates he shapeshifts through different roles; he’s a street-level fighter, a hero for his gang and local projects residence, a source of vengeance when he deals with the death of his lover and soldier.

Finally, towards the end of Series 1, he lies in court to get Avon imprisoned; taking on the role of society protector to keep him off the streets. He does what the police and courts are unable to do within the rules of their world.

His question of truth to us and the narrative is how capable our legal and justice system is of protecting people when they can’t keep a monster off the streets.

He throws up existential questions about the ability of the institutions to protect the inhabitants of the city. He crosses the justice line in a way that only he could.

McNulty is faced with this crisis when he realises that Omar lied to have Avon indicted; suddenly the victory is questionable and doesn’t belong to him.

Joséphine from Spiral

Click here for the IMDb profile.

If you haven’t seen the Parisian crime series Spiral (Engrenages in French) it’s worth getting a hold of the box set, series 1–4 are great. It goes off the wall a bit after that. Series 3, in particular, is perfect viewing. There are two seriously flawed leading ladies in the series, both on different sides of the law.

Joséphine is a young lawyer, willing to make compromises to climb up the ladder in defending severe criminals. She doesn’t pretend to be motivated by anything bar ambition and greed, yet she does highlight the flaws of her enemies in the police department, and sometimes she’s just right.

She is a nemesis character. She is unforgiving when the police overstep their mark with her clients (which they often do.) You’ve got to admire her resolve, while not quite gunning for her.

Yet some of her accusations towards the police and the French Justice System are spot on. How can one side of the law claim to be just, while behaving in parallels with the criminals?

She’s a great challenge and obstacle to the Laure Bertault’s crew who are as busy getting themselves out of trouble as they are stopping criminals.

There’s a true Mephistophelean spirit to Josephine. Her ambiguity and flawed character make her a great watch, and she’s always keeping the police and justice teams on their toes.

Ciro from Gomorrah

Click here for the IMDb profile.

Okay, this one is not like the others so I’m going off-topic, but Ciro from Gomorrah achieves something rare in film or tv; true redemption and a full 360 degrees spin from monster to martyr at the end of season three.

I struggle with my love for Gomorrah; more than other crime ghetto series that we’ve looked at above. I struggle with the reality that while I’m watching from the comfort of my sofa, I can so easily slip into these violent worlds

But something keeps us watching. Is it the pace? Is it the beautiful Amalfi coast settings or is it that now and again we see a flash of the vulnerability of one of the characters.

There’s a universal truth in Ciro’s death; a judgement quality saying you cannot escape the life you’ve built. Ciro’s myth, his immortality is crushed, maybe because it was conditional to a particular set of circumstances, an acceptance of his world.

When he moves away from accepting these conditions maybe he sees what is coming? He gives up immortality for release. He makes peace with his actions by visiting the graves of his wife and daughter; he declares he is leaving this world that he has created, but of course, in the land of mythology this is not possible.

Is there a ‘reap what you sow’ truth to Ciro?

I find these character analyses helpful when I’m writing. What new emotional truths can we bring to our stories by using characters who challenge the conventions of the world? What’s the rage of the story and the truth that no-one is talking about?

The four I mentioned above are ones that resonate with me, in writing and life. Isn’t that the measure of a beautiful story?

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