I remember the first time something on TV captivated me. I was watching the sitcom Friends, and I was on the edge of my seat, because Monica was suddenly looking at Chandler like a potential shag! I was like, whoa there, wait a second!! Monica, this is Chandler! Chandler Bing, from across the landing, the guy who dated Janice for God's sake!!
I'm pretty certain there were thousands of people out there who just like me, were having the same reaction. Ever wonder why?
Let's see - what's Friends basically? A sitcom, about the life of 6 friends in New York. I'm not sure there was even a plot behind there, but lo and behold, Friends went on to complete 10 seasons, and its reruns are watched by millions still, with almost the same enthusiasm and anticipation as when you first catch an episode on air.
You have these 6 very different people then, brought together in the same building (Rachel/Monica in one flat, Chandler/Joey across the landing, with Monica's brother Ross and their friend Phoebe dropping in to complete the cast). So there you go, starting point - 6 young people struggling in New York. It wasn't any more than that.
But what made Friends so memorable and so followed, is that the story centred around the lives of these 6 people. In short, the characters drove everything! There was Ross pining for Rachel since he's a teenager, Joey who sleeps with almost everything in knickers, Phoebe who gave a new meaning to crazy-loony-mad, Monica who was obsessed by cleaning, Rachel who's the little rich girl who wants to spread her wings and get away from daddy's credit cards, and Chandler who frankly, was so uptight and 'twisted' he didn't make much sense in the start.
You had Ross, always trying to woo Rachel (especially when his marriage to a woman who disovered she was a lesbian fell through). Rachel who doesn't want to give Ross a second glance, like she's always done. Over the course of the ten seasons, Rachel and Ross had hooked up and broken up at least thrice, and had had a baby together! Then of course there was Monica, looking for her Mr. Right, who on the day of Ross's second marriage to British girl Emily, was so down she knew only a shag would do for her, so she goes for the one who's always ready to shag, Joey. But instead of Joey she finds Chandler in the room, and suddenly they are in bed. It's the prelude to one of TV's most cheered on and satisfying relationships and marriage!
And what happened plot-wise? Nothing! Friends was about people, and as a writer, you must realize that Friends was all about the characters! The characterization of this show was so well sketched that the characters just grew on you, you felt you knew them. You would've wanted to bash Rachel when she has that one-night stand with Ross and then finds she's pregnant! You'd have wanted to group hug Monica and Chandler when they finally declare their love for one another! You'd have wanted to take Joey aside and tell him that this is not the way to treat a woman. You would've gladly thrown a shoe at Phoebe when she got into another rendition of the song "Smelly Cat".
You as the audience were made to forget that these people's names were really Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox-Arquette, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc, and David Schwimmer. They were simply Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Chandler, Joey and Ross. Period! It's the characters that were real, not the actors!
It makes me think of another instance where this has happened. One man, two roles, two Academy Awards nomination (one win). Russel Crowe, Maximus in Gladiator, John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. Two characters that when you looked at them, struck you as THE man/hero of the story. Not as Russel Crowe, because he became the characters he portrayed. Take another look at the same actor as Ed Hoffman in Body of Lies, and you'd see someone else!
Another good example would be Tom Hanks as Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia, and as Forrest Gump in the eponymous movie. Put these two men side by sidee and you'd go - yes, a passing physical resemblance, but never would you say, that's the same man!
So what does it come down to in the end? Characters, and characterization. A key ingredient of a good story is the characters peopling it. As the writer, it is your job to make these characters transcend from the page into fully-fleshed, living, breathing, human people. Actors do it when they take on a part. The writer too needs to do it armed with words, and with the inherent knowledge behind his/her characters.
Think of it - if you don't know your characters, how will you put them across to the audience? How will you make worthy and captivating things happen to them? If the writers of Friends didn't know that when Monica went to look for Joey in his bedroom when the wedding reception was in full swing that she'd find Chandler asleep there, how would we have gotten the twist that they have sex and find out there's more between them? They had to know Chandler is not one for receptions and all the hoopla and so he goes to bed when everyone is partying away. They needed to know that Monica does not give in to casual sex and that this is a turning point for when she sleeps with Chandler. They had to know that there's no way skirt-chasing Joey would be in his own bedroom before the early hours of morning when there are gorgeous bridesmaids to chase after!
You see thus that the story of Friends could not have progressed the way it did, the way it gripped its audience and captivated people's attentions, if the writers hadn't known the characters. Ask anyone what one of their favourite sitcoms is, and they'll say Friends. Why? Because while it may not have had a plot per se, it had wonderful, human and totally well-rounded characters at its heart.
So next time you're thinking of penning a good story, think of this underestimated and undervalued ingredient called characters and characterization. You may be holding the rough, unpolished gem of a story in your hand and not know it!
Any questions, feel free to holler!
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