Catching up on all the television, and playing Devil’s advocate with your characters… Here’s some different things I’ve been thinking a lot about this past month. Maybe there’s something here to interest you too?
SO MUCH TELEVISION
I’m back in the groove with my television viewing. After a couple of months of mostly re-watching old stuff, I’ve felt a lot more mentally and emotionally able to tackle some new stuff. Hurrah!
It was great to see the second half of season 2 return of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist – with quite the season cliffhanger… I was so looking forward to Drag Race Down Under, but truthfully the series so far feels lacking in the panache of its previous incarnations. Why, though, is a difficult question to answer. It may be that many of the contestants feel far too similar in personality and perspective (and sadly are mostly very, very white, which may go some way to explaining this)… The last season of Lucifer has pretty much only just landed and of course I’ve inhaled all of it already. Was it the best wrap up for a big, fun, silly show about Satan’s emotional welfare? I’m not sure, but yes, I probably will watch it again fairly soon to be sure… While I wasn’t completely wowed by the first couple of episodes of Girls5eva, I powered through and really enjoyed it. Tonally, it felt a little lost – compare the characters and performances of Sara Bareilles’s Dawn versus Busy Philipps’s Summer and you’ll see what I mean. But the music was annoyingly addictive and Renee Elise Goldsberry’s Wickie Roy alone is worth it… I continue to adore the comedy format Taskmaster, hosted by Greg Davies and Alex Horne, for it’s low-stakes, laugh-out-loud ridiculousness… And while it’s not new to anyone else, I’ve been dipping my toe into the Marvel series Jessica Jones. The noir detective tropes are laid on a little too thick, but played out in a world where fractured and flawed superhero types run about, which is pretty cool. Also, pleasantly surprised to see both Aussie Rachael Taylor and gorgeous Carrie-Anne Moss in the cast. It’s a difficult watch in places as it’s ultimately about domestic violence and survivor’s guilt, but I’m persevering…
HOW ARE CHARACTERS PLAY devil’s advocate
I’ve been thinking a lot about the purpose of secondary and supporting characters this past month. Or, I should say, how to approach designing and building them, as I’ll be tackling just this issue shortly on a project I’m developing. There’s so much theory surrounding protagonists and heroes, but it can get a little murky thinking about everyone else in your story. The fear for me is usually one of two things – that my secondary characters will become far more interesting and engaging than my hero ( a common trap I think), or that they’ll become generic stereotypes who serve only to carry forward the plot.
In my writing group this past couple of months, we’ve been routinely drawn back towards discussions of theme. What are our stories really about? How are they expressing their theme – the world view, the values, the ‘moral of the story’ that they are championing? If you consider theme a statement which your story either proves or disproves, how do your characters and your world best serve that argument? Your story is in this way an exploration of an idea, and ultimately takes a stance on a particular issue or set of values. Your protagonist by extension is your audience, seeing and experiencing the ramifications of various world views until they ultimately discover for themselves (either directly if they’re your character, or vicariously if they’re your audience) the ‘best’ or ‘right’ stance they must take in order to succeed and be the best version of themselves. It may be as big and clear cut as good versus evil, or as complex and murky as whether someone has the right to end their own life or not.
All of this talk of theme got me thinking about the idea of a Devil’s Advocate. We all know the saying, ‘to play devil’s advocate’, but you may not know where the phrase came from. The Devil’s advocate was originally a role in the Catholic Church, a canon lawyer tasked with arguing against the canonisation of those put forward for sainthood. The Devil’s advocate would argue with God’s advocate about the particular merits and veracity of individuals in order to test whether they deserved to be made a saint or not.
It was this person’s job to take a skeptical view of the candidate’s character, to look for holes in the evidence, to argue that any miracles attributed to the candidate were fraudulent, and so on.Thank you, Wikipedia
If a Devil’s advocate is there to ‘take a skeptical view’, and ‘to look for holes in the evidence’, isn’t this exactly the purpose of characters if we consider stories as explorations of theme?
As writers, we are often taught our job is to serve the hero’s journey, but I think it may be equally useful to see our job as one which serves the theme. If we create characters that are inbuilt Devil’s advocates (and God’s advocates) for our thematic statement, we create genuine friction and fundamental conflict lines for our hero to then navigate. Our hero, like our audience, is being presented, over and over, from varying perspectives and with varying stakes, reasons for or against the change that they must face in moving through their story. If each of our main secondary characters take very clear, and very different, perspectives on how to look at and weigh up the thematic question, it allows us as writers to start building more dynamic personalities for those characters. They too are having their values and perspectives routinely challenged, just as the protagonist is, but they must by definition have different backgrounds and experiences to allow their world view to feel truthful and authentic within the story.
The thing about a Devil’s advocate is that they were always meant to be really good lawyers, people just as well equipped, if not more so, than their counterpart, the God’s advocate, to convincingly argue their case. The point of the role was to ensure that only those most absolutely deserving of sainthood would pass muster, for surely only those who survived having every possible doubt thrown at them, every possible question raised, by the very best equipped antagonists utterly determined to prove them wrong, would truthfully be worthy of triumph.
What this can teach us then in our own writing is that our secondary characters, our cast of Devil’s and God’s advocates, must firmly believe in their own unique viewpoint on the theme. They must be the kind of compelling advocate for their perspective that will genuinely throw our protagonist for a six, making them question which path is the right one, which moral standpoint is most righteous, when and how can we bend the rules and under what circumstances.
The weaker your cast of advocates, the weaker, or rather less interesting, your story. If it’s easy to see what the right thing to do is, why should anyone bother watching? It’s why we love flaws so much. It’s why we relate to characters that make decisions we may never make in reality, but deeply understand emotionally. We enjoy the exploration of grey areas, we relish situations which make us question our values in unexpected and challenging ways. It is what it means to be ‘moved’.
I would not say this is the sole way to see and construct a cast for your story, but it’s certainly one approach to layer on top of your writing to check whether all your characters really do deserve their place, and check whether they are earning their keep all the way through your story by challenging the protagonist’s actions, decisions and ultimate values. Would you agree?
Stay safe, folks! x