Character Short-hand

TV Writer Paul Guyot talks about character short-hand or, as he calls it, character gadgets. Network and studio development execs love them.

On the new TNT show The Closer the lead character has a weakness for
junk food.

That’s it.

Take that little gadget away and that "unique" character is suddenly very
similar to several other female TV leads. But network and studio folks like
gadgets. They think it makes the character unique. It’s easy. It’s simple. And
much safer than doing something deeper, or darker, or less mainstream.

It also leads to rampant cliches. How many times have you seen the character who loves junk food? A hundred times? A thousand. I’ve lost count (I remember seeing it in the pilot for THE STRIP  a couple years ago on UPN and throwing my dinner at the TV).  How about the cop who is a slob? It was old when THE ODD COUPLE was on the air and it hasn’t become any fresher with each new iteration. But character short-hand/gadgets  gives a development exec something to latch on to…"Oh yeah, Det. Nick Waters. I get him. He’s the hard-nosed cop who actually spends his free time ballroom dancing. That gives the character depth, levels, shading. Yeah, I like Nick. He’s got an edge."

Not a real edge, or any tangible depth,  just a quirk that’s easy to grasp, that quickly defines the character for the development exec. (And not just development execs, but editors, too. How many loner cops have you seen in novels who love classic rock music, drink too much, and are estranged from their wives?) The danger is when weak writers start relying on those quirks as a replacement for developing an actual character.   And I see that happening more and more…

David Montgomery expands on Paul’s thoughts, talking about writing gimmicks in mystery novels and offers this great advice:

Gimmicks lead to a "sameness" in writing, making a particular book sound like
every other book you’ve read. As a result, gimmicks diminish the author’s
individual voice and style. They also have a tendency to take the reader out of
the story, disrupting the flow and rhythm of the book.

So here’s my piece of advice for the day: if you find yourself using a
gimmick in your writing, stop it! Be creative instead. Be original. Think about
the problem and figure out how else you can solve it. Find a way to
make the plot work, or to get the reader the necessary information without
resorting to a trick or cliche.

12 thoughts on “Character Short-hand”

  1. We probably all agree that “gadgets” (or gimmicks, or hooks, or tags) are bad. And yet–most of the how-to-write-a-novel books say they’re the best way to achieve depth/levels/shading.
    I should take up ballroom dancing.

  2. Look at who is writing those “how-to-write-a-novel” books. The ones written by successful novelists probably don’t give that advice. I may be wrong about this, but I doubt Lawrence Block, in his fine book “Writing the Novel,” suggests that the way to give a character a character is to tack on some arbitrary quirk or hobby…

  3. I tend to call the widgets, but anyone with half a brain should be able to see that a character is made of of more than just an incident in their past and a current nervous habit or hobby (nervous or otherwise.)You’d think, with all the education we seem to get these days, more writers would realise that.

  4. On the other hand… I’m not sure I’ve ever read any how-to-write-the-novel book that was more than trivially useful, even those by published novelists. (I don’t remember whether I’ve read Block’s.) They’re good for reminding me of things once in a while, but after the first couple, they’re mostly for procrastinating.

  5. I found Lawrence Block’s WRITING THE NOVEL inspiring with lots of truly helpful and practical advice, all of which I must have internalized because I can’t recall a particular nugget of knowledge to share with you.

  6. There are a couple of writing books that I’ve found useful, but most of them seem pointless. Block’s books are good, as is David Morrell’s. Stephen King’s book might not be useful from a craft stand-point, but I found it very informative.
    Lee, what do you think of Robert McKee’s STORY?

  7. As far as writing books go, I found SELF EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS to be immensely helpful, with lots of good here’s-what-you-do advice.
    Characters usually grab me with their voice, with the way they speak, which is probably why I like first-person books. The best example (to me) on TV right now is probably either House or Monk.
    Gadgets, on the other hand, are a shortcut – the only way to really bring out a character like, say, Andy Sipowicz (sp?) is to put him through a lot of different situations.

  8. Oh, and I saw the first episode of CSI and it was absolutely CRAMMED with gadgets. Gambling problems, single moms, etc. – each character had to be “unique”, just like all the others. The show seems to have outgrown that, fortunately.

  9. I like Block’s books on writing, though I’ve found King’s and Morrell’s to be more entertaining than generally useful. The best book I’ve read on writing is “Make Your Words Work” by Gary Provost, which is a very nuts-and-bolts kind of book. Unfortunately, I believe it’s out of print, but every writer should read it at least once.
    Mark Terry


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