Character Pain

Writers can really learn a lot from TV.

I used to really like the tv show Bones.  It’s a crime-drama that was somewhat enjoyable (at first sight of this genre, I usually chuckle under my breath and turn away).  But now, the show does not entertain, and that’s because it’s lacking in character pain.

Character pain sounds like a bad thing, and it is.  Audiences don’t like it, writers don’t like writing it (the empathetic human beings among us, that is), but nothing could be more quintessential to high quality entertainment. By pain, I summarily mean adversity.  Physical, mental, situational, relationship-al, etc.  To clarify, readers and characters should always be feeling something between images and imgres-1.

Bones should serve as a great example for all writers (spoilers for the later seasons follow: you have been warned!)


In its formative years, Bones outlined the lives of its two main characters: the socially awkward yet genius (of course) forensic scientist (“Brennan”), and the street-smart, rugged cop (“Booth”).  Over four seasons, these clichés actually resembled real human beings who were always trying to get together, but were consistently prevented from doing so.  The tasty tension of hurt feelings and missed chances made for decent entertainment.  Where the folks writing Bones went wrong (story/entertainment-wise) was to drag the show into its tenth season after resolving Booth and Brennan’s relationship-al tensions somewhere halfway through.  The resolution/ending of pain is good, but it signals to the audience an end of plot and substance.  For watchers of Bones, this happened when the two main characters finally got married; everyone knows that an American cable crime drama is never, ever going to GRRM its main characters once they’re hitched (and it shouldn’t feel like it has to…)

All this goes back to the fact that character pain is necessary for growth and substance in a story, and without it, the audience will quickly realize that what they’re consuming is not a real story, but rather a pantomime of one, with any sense of stakes removed.

Of course, I believe that there’s a point of diminishing returns when it comes to character pain, but that’s fodder for another post.

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