Monday, January 16, 2012

Character Arcs

When the promotional commercials for the action-comedy Chuck first came on four years ago, my husband immediately took notice. The show looked hilarious. A Nerd-Herd computer geek becomes embroiled in matters of national security and international intrigue, all without having a clue how to be a spy or foil espionage and terrorist attempts on the nation.

And the first season lived up to expectations. Chuck was endearing, inept, and as he used his special skills (High scorer on Chopper Command and Asteroids, a savant's knowledge of the movie TRON, and a genius's ability with computers) to aid his spy buddies in circumventing evil all while trying to hide the fact from his family and co-workers, he became even more endearing.

However, season two began, and there was a subtle shift in Chuck's motivations. In season one, he just wanted to figure out how to get the 'Intersect' out of his head and return to his normal life. In season two, he kind of decided he likes the whole spy thing, and he wanted to become a fully sanctioned US Spy. By season three, he's got spy-game. Gone are his bumbling attempts, his fear, and most of the fun of the show. Now, in season four (the final season,) we aren't even watching anymore. Sad. Because we used to enjoy the show so much. (In an aside, the network has shown they have little interest in the show Chuck - it's been on life-support for the past two seasons- and I think that has something to do with the show's decline in ratings as well.)

Compare that to the TV show Castle. A best-selling, uber-famous novelist, Rick Castle, finds new inspiration for his novels by following around NYPD Detective Kate Beckett. He creates a fictional character based upon Kate, and in the name of research, he gets to hang out at the police station, go to crime scenes, and use his powers of observation and knowledge of character motivations to assist in solving crimes. As a novelist, the premise intrigued me. As a fan of Firefly, the fact that Nathan Fillion was the main character guaranteed that I would watch. (He's so swoony!)

And like Chuck, season one lived up to the premise and more. LOVE! I was even happier to see that season two maintained the same chemistry, the same wit and intelligence, and the same character motivations. Then season three arrived. The first half of the season = terrific. Then the character's motivations changed. Instead of focusing on the weekly puzzle of solving the crime and the amazing push-pull of the Castle-Beckett-will-they-won't-they relationship, the show shifted gears. The mystery of the murder of Beckett's mother several years before became the ongoing focus. The show got darker, lost its humor, and I found myself saddened, praying the show wouldn't go the way of Chuck.

I think the writers and producers must've listened to audience feedback, because the first show of season four was the WORST ever tv show example of telling, not showing, and reeling in the Beckett back-story and returning to the show's basic premise that all it's success had been built on. Episode 4.1 was dreadful. In one hour, they covered three months of story time, had Castle tell Beckett to back-burner the search for her mother's killer and focus on current cases, and had Beckett agreeing. Basically, they informed the viewers that the next week would be business as usual and no more weird stuff.

Though the episode was terrible from a viewers and writer's point of view, it was so necessary to the future success of the show. If season four had picked right up where season three had left off, the death-knell for Castle would've been ringing steadily.

So, how does this relate to writing fiction? Think of the best multi-book series characters in history. Sherlock Holmes. Miss Marple. Inspector Monk. Cadfael. What makes these long series work is that the main characters are consistent. If they do change, it is slowly and in ways that don't fundamentally alter the character. What would the Miss Marple mysteries have been like if halfway through the series, Miss Marple decided to she didn't want to live in St. Mary Mead anymore and knit mufflers and attend teas, rather that she wanted to become a fisherman on the high seas? What if Cadfael abandoned life in the monastery and embraced the religion of the Druids? What if Sherlock Holmes abandoned his search for intellectual fulfillment, settled down in the country, got married, and fathered a passel of little Sherlocks?

Answer, I'd have quit reading those series. Like I stopped watching Chuck. Chuck has broken faith with the viewers by changing Chuck so radically, he doesn't resemble the initial character at all. He wants such radically different things, he behaves so differently, it's like a different show.

Castle nearly made the same mistake, but the writers were able to pull it back from the precipice in time. And boy am I glad. :)

Are you a Castle fan? Do you read a long series with a single main character?


  1. I haven't watched any of these, but I keep hearing about Castle. This is great to thin about though....

    You know I'm a fan of The Vampire Diaries. I haven't liked season three nearly as much as I loved seasons one and two. Now I'm trying to figure out why and I thin it might be some of what you're saying here. The two main guys are way TOO different than the guys I loved in seasons one and two. One went from bad boy to good guy. The other went from good guy to unhinged bad guy.

    It's interesting though....because they have to change it up to an extent. Audiences get sick of the same old, same old. But how much is too much?

  2. I don't watch Castle. I am hooked on Supernatural or was. This 7th season has jumped the shark with boring stories of the boys chasing uber monsters. Sort of a rehash of season 1. Until this past Fri ep when Dean gets his hand on an uber monster and gets sucked back to the 1940s where he meets Eliot Ness. Yes, that one! The episode put the Super back in Supernatural with the other word aspect and snappy dialogue.

  3. Value of listening to the audience.

    I haven't seen either of these, but have heard positive things about both. I'm so not with the TV times.

    ~ Wendy

  4. Castle and Nathan Fillion rock! I was just commenting to someone the other day that it amazes me how authors can write single characters in a long series so well. I think it takes a lot of pre-thinking and a lot of talent. A challenge MAYBE I'll take up someday. But for now, leave it to the pros :)

  5. Okay, I agree 100% about Chuck. I haven't watched the last season either. :(

    I love Castle, but we started late and have been watching on Netflix. We are almost through with Season 3, and moving on to what's on TV now. We've tivoed it.

  6. Great post Erica! I used to watch Chuck too! Loved it! I thought it was so much fun. But I stopped watching two seasons ago. I wasn't sure why...I just didn't want to watch it anymore. But you hit the nail on the head! The show stopped being about funny, nerdy Chuck and started being more about serious spy stuff! Too big a change indeed! :)

  7. Yeah, I'm with you about Chuck, Erica. It was a great show at first. I understand that the directors need to change things up every season to keep people watching, but don't change the characters personalities.

    Haven't seen Castle yet. Sounds like a great show!

  8. I have to disagree about "Chuck." I have loved this show from the beginning. While there have been changes, I think it is a part of the characters' growth. Chuck is now looking to settle down after getting married last season. He wants children and a regular life, as does his wife. I have enjoyed seeing this side of him. The only think of this season I did not like is Morgan having the intersect. Fortunately that did not last too long. Casey is even considering settling down, sort of, with his girlfriend. And while I like "Castle" at times, I am not a big fan. While the romance is integral to the success of the series, it tends to create problems as one is hard to sustain over a long period of time. I do think "Chuck" has done a better job of this, although I will admit to not faithfully watching "Castle." "Chuck" only has two more episodes, and I will greatly miss it!

  9. I think it would be difficult to write a TV series, keep a couple apart for a long time when they are as obviously attracted to one another as Beckett and Castle are, and to make the separation believable. As you said, the characters would have to remain relatively static and the character arcs enacted slowly. However, since the producers have no way of knowing which season will be the last, deciding when to move things along would be tough.

  10. I've only caught a couple of Chuck episodes, but I've heard how his character changed. and I keep hearing about Castle-this and Castle-that ...
    But I think my husband already believes there are enough fictional characters messing with my head.
    Although, we do like to watch Lie to Me. Very intriguing show ...
    But your points are excellent, whether I've watched these shows or not, Erica.