I love good TV, but great TV astounds me. Mostly because there are so many things that need to come together just right for a TV show to be great. And unlike a great novel, or even a movie, those things need to come together week after week, and season after season. Madmen is comprised of remarkable acting, direction, design, music, and production values. But I think most people agree that the writing deserves to be singled out as an example of greatness, because Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator and main writer, has succeeded much like Julian Fellowes the creator of Downton Abbey. He has articulated world we have been happy to enter, full of people we are unlikely to forget.
So here, as best as I can deduce them, are ten suggestions on how to create great characters, based on things I think Matthew Weiner has done uncommonly well.
And for those of you who haven’t caught up on your viewing yet, here it is: Spoiler Alert.
Ten Principles of Writing Great Characters
Lisa Houston (by way of TV’s Madmen)
1. Illuminate your characters. Don’t judge them.
Example: Don Draper
The first episode of the first season of Madmen opens with Don Draper trying to figure out how to sell cigarettes by discussing brand loyalty with a man who is waiting on him. At first, the busboy says he could never give up his preferred brand, citing a loyalty that goes back to his days in the service. By the end of the conversation, Don has described a world where the smoker’s brand doesn’t exist, and has him ready to consider finding something else. We get it. Don is a man who could sell coals to Newcastle.
The other defining characteristic we see in Don in this first episode is his acute interest in women, plural. One of the greatest “other shoe drops” is the end of this episode, when we see this work-obsessed womanizer go home, to his wife. But by the time that moment comes, we’re having too much fun with Don to judge him.
This rule is really just a version of the old adage, “show, don’t tell,” but I think these words are a bit stronger, and perhaps better at dissuading the writer from moralizing, which can be a motivation lurking behind too much telling.
Illuminate. Don’t judge.
2. Calculate the True Cost (of your characters’ actions on themselves and others.)
Example: Betty Draper
Like the urge to idealize your characters, it’s tempting to get them out of jams without a scratch. Why? Because it’s a scary feeling to have your characters car drive into a ravine when you don’t have a clue how to get a car out of a ravine. But remember, if you end a chapter with your character’s car driving into a ravine, chances are good the reader will go on to the next chapter.
Don is so smooth. It’s not impossible for us to assume he’d get away with sleeping with other women. But isn’t it a terrific twist when Betty, perhaps out of boredom, reveals to her psychiatrist that she can feel that Don’s touch in bed is sometimes tailored to some other woman’s needs? Betty could easily have been a clueless cliché. Instead, we see a very plausible example of what would really become of a woman so betrayed, not only by Don, but by her own mother’s education of her to rely upon her appearance to bring her happiness. Perhaps such a woman would struggle with self-esteem issues in any marriage, perhaps she would not be the most loving mother herself. And on Don’s part, no, he wouldn’t get away with it. He’d be divorced. At least twice.
Calculate the cost.
3. Know your time, place, and culture.
Example: Smoking and the office staff.
There are plenty of period bon mots, songs, TV shows, and news items of the day dropped into this show. Some operate merely as color. But others are integral, as in the pilot episode, which gives us the newsflash that cigarettes are bad for you, even as the shot pans down the bar to show person after person after person puffing away. It’s not 1950 when nobody cared. It’s not 1970 when everybody knew. We know exactly when we are.
The other era-defining issue in the first episode is the role of women in the workplace and for this Weiner gives us an expert teacher in Joan, and provides her with a novice whom she must indoctrinate. Peggy appears first as a device for a detailed walk-through of the office. Now, we know when we are, and where we are. And to further understand the place, we meet the three telephone operators who are aware of the inner workings of the place due to their supernatural ability to eavesdrop and control avenues of communication. The three function like the witches at the beginning of Macbeth. Their raised eyebrows about Eleanor, the secretary of Don’s that Peggy is there to replace, and their instruction to Peggy that she let Don see her legs, let us know that there’s been something shady going on in the recent past, and intones dark things to come.
Know your time, place, and culture.
4. Let your characters change, even if it’s for the worse.
Example: Ken Cosgrove
I had hopes for Ken. After all, he’s a writer. I thought maybe he’d get out alive. But the world of advertising has its claws in. He started out as a fun-loving, creative, self-confident guy, but Ken later becomes a half-blind, stressed out, vengeful mess. Wouldn’t you be? This relates to calculating the true cost for your characters. What would happen to someone with the soul of a novelist, who goes to work at Sterling Cooper?
Let your characters change.
5. Differentiate your characters.
Examples: Peggy and Joan
I heard an interview with Matthew Weiner recently in which he said that he loved the idea of Peggy and Joan walking down the hall together. That is one of the great things about the show. People are different and often misunderstand one another. Not only men and women in relationship, but same sex characters are often on quite different pages. Pete and Don don’t understand one another. Even Roger and Don are very different. Joan and Peggy have some great scenes, but they’re not best friends. They wouldn’t be.
Differentiate your characters.
6. Have your characters say nothing, eloquently.
Example: Megan, Betty, and Joan.
It can be fun to read a novel or see a TV show or movie where everyone is equally verbose, but after a while, it gets dull. We feel like we’re hearing a rant from the author, rather than meeting individual characters.
Even in workplaces that attract talkers, like legal settings or journalism, not everyone expresses themselves with equal skill. And even articulate people need some time to let the wheels turn. As in music, the rests are as important as the notes. Who can forget Don Draper, lying on his office sofa, staring at the ceiling, seeing God knows what. And the silence of the women is very dramatic at times, especially when we feel they may be bursting to say something, but know it will get them into loads of trouble. There are many times in the series when Joan says nothing. Even after she is made a partner the status she enjoys is different than the men’s. She often keeps her mouth shut, and her silence is eloquent, and appropriate to the period. Don’s second wife Megan’s silence at key moments seemed to me an indication that she never quite fully bought into Don’s world, a world where you can talk your way into and out of anything. Likewise Betty. Some of her most expressive moments are when she is smoking, and watching, and thinking.
Who people are is not entirely down to what they say.
Have your characters say nothing.
7. What do they know, and when do they need to know it?
Examples: Extramarital affairs and Office shake-ups.
Weiner does a great job keeping track of who knows what, and who doesn’t, and uses it to create tension. What the wives know about their husbands, what people know or don’t know about various plans for the agency, creates tension in relationships and shows us who they are.
It’s tempting when one is first feeling inspired to write “this happened, and then this happened and then this happened.” But the timeline is one thing, and who knows what when is another. Even a sentence like “I got up to go to the store,” gives something away before its necessary. Why not get up first, and make us wonder where you’re going?
There’s a very funny moment in the final season when Don’s current, ditsy secretary demands to know what’s going on with the agency, which has been in turmoil for some time. The moment is funny in part because it comes so terribly late. Poor dear, she’s the last to know.
What do they know, and when do they need to know it?
8. Bring in outside eyes.
Example: Don’s brother, Peggy’s secretary.
One tool to help avoid idealizing your characters is to show us people who see them from a very different perspective. One of the darkest moments of the series was when Don rejected his own brother. If we had been tempted to look past his womanizing and consider him a charming rogue, that episode pretty much put an end to that.
As the lone creative woman in the agency, Peggy is also a kind of heroine. I think she’s probably someone people are rooting for to succeed. But how does her secretary feel about her? The episode where she takes her secretary’s Valentine’s Day flowers as her own was an eye opener for me. I suddenly realized how crabby she is. I still like Peggy, but now I know, I wouldn’t want to work for her!
Bring in outside eyes.
9. Show a range where appropriate.
Example: Period defining moments handled differently per character.
This rule is sort of a combination of the rules to know your time and place, and differentiate your characters.
Roger doesn’t really care that Marilyn Monroe has O.D.’d. While Joan is devastated. Pete Campbell is strictly Greenwich, while Paul Kinsey is inclined in a more liberal direction and even becomes a Hare Krishna. Some of the richness of the show is created by including world events that are part of all of our psyches, and showing the very different ways the characters relate to them. A recent example of this in literature was the novel Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, which takes place in New York in 1974 during the real-life event of a man walking a high wire between the Twin Towers. One moment in time. Many stories.
Madmen might have been a claustrophobic snapshot of a world that was, in some ways, very behind the times. A time capsule of a show. But we feel the outside world crowding in. Lives are being altered. People are changing. Time marches on. This was an era of bouffant hairdos, and flower children.
Show a range where appropriate.
10. Keep your promises, but surprise us.
Example: Who knows?
Don’t you hate it when you’re on page two hundred of a book and one the characters suddenly has a million dollars, or plays the piano? Or the book opens with a chase scene and then nothing happens for three hundred pages?
If you begin a book with “It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” it had better be a futuristic dystopian masterpiece. And it is. (George Orwell’s 1984.) If you tell us “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” you’d better show us some of each. Likewise, if you open with “all happy families are alike, and all unhappy families are unhappy to their own particular fashion,” we’re going to expect to see one very particular form of tragedy.
The name of the play that was the basis for Casablanca was Everybody Goes To Rick’s. And the opening narration of the film tells us that everybody who comes through Casablanca is desperate to get out. So when we meet a guy named Rick who seems to be just hanging out there, we are intrigued. Everybody wants to get out of Casablanca, except him. What can the reason be? We don’t know. But we do know that everyone comes to Casablanca, so we expect the reason to show up. When the line comes… “of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine,” it makes perfect sense. We knew it all along, and that feeling of inevitability is delicious.
I don’t know what will happen on the last episode, but let’s consider what we do know: To don something is to put it on. To drape means to cover. We know that Don Draper is hiding something. And we know that he can sell anything to anybody.
The name of the pilot episode was Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. Assuming that Matthew Weiner is going to keep his promises, but surprise us, I’m thinking that some of that smoke is going to clear. I think that the amazing salesman may finally sell himself a little bit of the truth.
But I’m also thinking that things might get a little bit crazy first.
After all, the name of the show is Madmen.