Developing Your Characters: Serial vs. Episodic


Characters in serial content need a different approach than characters in episodic content. Let’s look at what this means for your characters.

As I’m writing this post, I’m grotesquely overdue on a deadline. My fifth book was due to the publisher in May of 2021. Life and COVID got in the way, so it was extended to December 31st, 2021.

As of the writing of this post, it’s February 2022. What does this have to do with anything? Everything. But we’ll get to that.

First, let’s begin our odyssey into character development with the Doctrine of Dependent Origination.

The Doctrine of Dependent Origination

In Buddhist thought, there’s a doctrine called pratītyasamutpāda (dependent origination). It’s so fundamental that every school of Buddhist thought shares reverence for this doctrine. So, what does it mean, and why am I talking about it in an article on building fictional characters?

“Dependent origination” means that everything that arises results from something else. Nothing exists in a vacuum. (The doctrine is more sophisticated than that, but this definition will suffice for our conversation here.)

This doctrine tells us that everything is a result of something else—nothing simply is all by itself. We have gravel because it was once larger rocks that we crushed. We have flowers because seeds took root. We have personalities because of the experiences in our lives. Identities are amalgamations of experience.

Everything you go through affects you somehow, from the scar on your left elbow to your aversion to wasps. Just like the stones in a river are rounded by the water, so, too, are we shaped by the world we move through.

Buddha statues against a bright sunset
In Buddhist thought, the doctrine of “dependent origination” means that nothing exists in a vacuum. This is as true for your characters as it is for yourself. Image via Nuttawut Uttamaharad.

This is a useful doctrine to keep in mind when developing characters. They, too, should follow the doctrine of dependent origination. Another way of thinking of it is “because of this, that.” Everything you can point to has a that which caused this. The same is true for your characters.

Villains, heroes, anti-heroes, cliches, traditions, archetypes—they all come from our understanding of what it means to be a person. If you want to bring organic depth to your character development, start asking yourself, “Why?”

Why is this person a villain? Because they have a chip on their shoulder. Why do they have a chip on their shoulder? Because mommy loved big brother better. Why did mommy love big brother better? Because big brother didn’t go around killing birds . . .

You get the idea. Capturing a character is like capturing a river in motion. You’re only grabbing an instant of it being a river, not the full river itself. And when rivers change course and flow into each other, all kinds of dramatic things happen. Think about that when you start introducing your characters to each other.

Episodic Characters vs. Serial Characters

Let’s carry the idea of dependent origination into our examination of episodic vs. serial characters. If experiences shape who we are moment by moment, what does that mean in the highly fictionalized world of episodic content?

Episodic characters’ experiences are contained and resolved (usually) in each installment. Consequences or realities from one installment may not even follow them into the next. This works great in syndication, which, for a long time, has been critical in the programming ecosystem.

When something goes into syndication, many more channels and outlets can get their hands on the content and distribute it to wider audiences. This is an excellent way for producers to recoup upfront costs over time.

However, re-runs aren’t necessarily going to air at the same prescribed time every week as the original release. That means viewers are often going to come into the syndicated season randomly. Since episodic content usually stands independently without critical links to the preceding and following episodes, this is no problem. Fans can tune in whenever they want, and it doesn’t matter where in the series they fall.

Star Trek characters James Kirk and Dr. Spock
Star Trek is a great example of how syndication can benefit a program. “Despite its cancellation after only three seasons (and 79 episodes), Star Trek gained new life through syndication, as the devotion of its growing fan base increased from the late 1960s and throughout the ’70s. By 1986, nearly two decades after it entered syndication, A.C. Nielsen Co. listed Star Trek: The Original Series as the No. 1 syndicated show” ( Image via Paramount.

Episodic Characters

That means that episodic characters are familiar, and change comes slowly, over time, if at all. The events that occur in this kind of programming typically occur to the characters. A challenge or a contest or some other kind of conflict arises, the character (or, more commonly, a cast of characters) rise to the occasion, and there’s some lesson or takeaway.

However, since these takeaways can’t really carry over into the next episode, as we’d see with serial content, the lessons learned are usually superficial at best, and they have no permanent bearing on the character.

For most audiences, watching episodic content means watching the same characters do different things in the same manner. We know what we want to see, and if the content creators keep delivering that (without wild plot swings or character arcs), we’ll keep coming back.

When developing characters for episodic content, you’re creating a fixed personality (a flat character). So, when you start asking yourself why to develop the continuum of dependent origination, you need to stop at a certain point. If you keep going, you’re going to develop a long line of causes and effects that tell a dynamic, changing story—like a character in serial content.

If capturing a dynamic character is like capturing an instant of a river, capturing an episodic character is more like lifting a large rock from the riverbed. It isn’t the rock you want; it’s the particular wave in the water that it causes day-in-day-out without change.

A kitchen scene from the TV series Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
In season six, episode one of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Will burns down the family’s kitchen. However, because the stories in the show are episodic, there isn’t much mention of this happening ever again, despite the intensity of such a traumatic event. The kitchen goes back to normal, and the stories reset, a la Groundhog Day. Image via Warner Bros. Television Distribution.

Serial Characters

Serial characters are part of a continuous narrative told chronologically in installments. These characters grow with each installment, and, as with a book, they’re never the same in the end as they were in the beginning.

Unlike episodic characters, we do expect these personalities to change—exactly how and to what degree they change is part of what draws us to this content.

The challenges that serial characters face have direct and lasting effects on their development. We follow a causal chain from one scene to the next until we reach the end of the character arc. Whatever happens to the character, our enjoyment (or hatred, or annoyance, etc.) of the content is based on the time we spent with them and how the content creators used that time.

Closeup of a character from the HBO series Peacermaker
The hugely popular series Peacemaker is a good example of serial content in action. If you pop into this story without watching the episodes in sequence, you can become seriously confused. This “serial question” is a great way to determine what kind of content you want to create, based on how you want your audience to interact with each episode. Image via HBO.

You can pop into serial content in syndication just like episodic content, but if you aren’t already familiar with the storylines, you’re not going to get as much out of the episode. Without the linear progression, it can be difficult to determine how the changes that arise in each episode affect the entire story.

We don’t show up for serial content to see the same characters doing different things the same way. Rather, we show up to see different characters doing the same things in different ways. The syndication test is a way to determine what kind of content you’re interested in creating.

Unlike episodic characters, for whom we have to stop the causal why questions at some point, serial characters will benefit from you asking those questions over and over. Once you think you know the character, the events of your story should unfold with new answers to the question why.

Why is my character reacting this way? Because you locked him in a room full of spiders, and he hates spiders. Why does he hate spiders? He isn’t sure. Why isn’t he sure? Because he can’t remember. Why can’t he remember? Because he blocked out a memory of being trapped in a closet with a spider. So what happens now? He remembers . . .

Developing the Characters

We often think that we develop characters, work on them a bit, and then that’s it, they’re finished. However, that’s not entirely true. Yes, you can wrap development on a character and move on with your life, but that doesn’t mean that the character development stops.

It’s important to realize that characters don’t belong to you—once you’ve released them into the world, they belong to, well . . . the world. People will continue encountering your characters, relating to them, and interpreting your work well after you’ve moved on to the next project.

Even in the short term, character development continues beyond brainstorming, drafting, and even filming. Everything plays a part in shaping your creative personalities, including editing, color correction, effects—anything and everything.

It’s rare to develop a character from start to finish entirely on your own. The characters you create aren’t really yours—you’re just borrowing them from the universe for a little while, based on the archetypes, people, traditions, and legends you’ve encountered before. You piece them together based on what you know as possible with a causal chain of events that more or less creates itself—albeit with a healthy nudge from your creative mind.

Illustration of Polyphemus titan being attacked by Odysseus' soldiers
Your characters will continue to develop in the minds of your audiences long after you’ve moved onto your next project. Image via delcarmat.

So, why did I begin this article by admitting to a blown deadline? Let me put my money where my mouth is. I started writing this overdue book when I was eighteen years old, and I finished the first draft by the time I turned twenty-one in 2000. It was a massive tome, somewhere around 300,000 words (the average novel you pick up in the airport is 70,000-100,000 words), with dozens and dozens of characters.

It was also complete crap.

So, I threw the entire thing away, rethought it, and wrote it again. Events changed, characters evolved, life went on. Fast-forward a few years, and I’m twenty-five years old. The rewrite is good enough to land a literary agent, and he immediately puts me to work revising it again. This time, we threw away half, and I rewrote that part. Characters changed names, events changed locations, life went on. My agent got to work trying to sell the book.

But, like any good creative, I got bored. I went and wrote another book, and that one sold immediately. Within a couple of days, we had offers on my original book. But, my tastes had changed. I was into other stories now, so I said no, and we shelved my tome. That was in 2008.

My second book (first one published) came out in 2010, then I wrote another one that came out in 2014, and then a third that came out in 2016, and then another one in 2017. I kept thinking about that original story, moving things around, changing characters, etc. I could never decided if I wanted to come back to it or not.

In 2020, I finally realized it needed to be entirely rewritten. Again. So, I typed up a new proposal, and my agent sold the book immediately. Very little remained of the original concept, but there were a few gems that survived all of the iterations.

The funny bit? This story was originally based on a game of Dungeons and Dragons I ran when I was sixteen years old. If you’ve been doing your math, that was twenty-six years ago. The characters in this (finally) forthcoming book have been growing and evolving for over two decades, and they still continue to surprise me.

Which brings me to my final point. When you’ve developed your characters organically, eventually, they’ll begin telling the story to you, not the other way around. Embrace it! If your character suddenly kills someone they shouldn’t, or throws their life away, or runs off to join the circus, follow along.

The quiet part of your brain is trying to tell you that you’re getting in the way of this simulated person you’ve created. I’ve seen it in books, I’ve seen it in video game scripts, and I’ve seen it in screenplays.

Character development never ends, even after you’re gone, because people never end. We just hand simulated people off to our audience and bid them adieu.

What happens from there depends upon how well you listened to your characters in the first place.

A few more filmmaking gems for you:

Cover image from Star Trek: Discovery via Paramount.


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