When I was an only child growing up on a farm in southeastern Illinois, my closest friend was often our television set. I’d watch anything—sitcoms, westerns, game shows, talk shows, children’s shows, even a soap opera from time to time. I disappeared into whatever happened to be on, caught up sometimes by the stories, sometimes by the personalities, always by the magic of existing in someone else’s world.
I confess, then, that one of the things that’s getting me through this pandemic and the general upset of our own world, is a retreat to old television programs. I’ve been particularly taken lately with “Bat Masterson,” a western I remember from my youth, starring Gene Barry in the title role. The show was based on the life of Bartholemew William Barclay “Bat” Masterson, a notable U.S. Army scout, lawman, professional gambler, and journalist, who, as the program made clear in the voiceover at the start of each episode, “became a legend in his own time.”
In the show, Bat is a bit of a dandy. Known for the gold-knobbed cane he carried and the derby hat he wore, he cut quite a figure wherever he happened to go. I’ll admit that one of the things I like about this show, particularly now, is its predictability. I know going into each episode that Bat will always win out over the bad guys, and he’ll always get the pretty girl at the end. If you’ve seen one episode, you’ve seen them all, which is exactly what I want these days. I want to know without doubt who the bad guys are. I want to see them vanquished. I want right to win out. I want the promise of something sweet at the end. In this way “Bat Masterson” is very satisfying viewing indeed.
What it isn’t, though, is memorable precisely because of its predictability. Because I know who Bat is and what he’ll do in every episode, he becomes very easy to forget. The one thing that makes his character even slightly interesting is his foppery, and that’s because it’s so unexpected. It’s something a tad out of character that makes someone worth noting, both in television and on the page. This surprising character trait, though, isn’t enough to save our valiant Bat because once his basic essence is established he never varies from it.
Variety is what makes our characters unforgettable. The key is to find those aspects of character that are contrary to the person we’ve come to know. These contradictory layers give our characters dimension. The saintly woman who one day steals a package of cookies from a grocery store; the hardhearted man who leaves a box of food on an unfortunate neighbor’s front porch. You get the idea. Actions out of character make that character interesting.
So let’s try it. Think of a character, maybe one you’ve already been working with, maybe one you create right now on the spot, maybe a person you know or knew in your real life. What type of person are they? What face do they show to the world? Now think of an action that no one would expect them to be capable of doing. How do you let the pressure of the narrative bring that person to that surprising, yet inevitable action?
Sometimes we need something to write toward, not only in plot but also in character. Giving characters surprising actions and challenging yourself to make them believable can be a way of rounding out those characters and letting their seemingly contradictory layers make them people we can never forget.