What writers can learn from True Blood and The Walking Dead.

***But first let me say this… without naming any names:  The day insurance companies and government reimbursed medical programs stop paying for men of a certain age, oh… I’m sorry, to speak in the vernacular… man-sluts to have sex (what do you call a man who gets paid for sex? A prostitute?) via the use of Viagra, Cialis and Levitra, is the day we can open a discussion about who pays for female contraception.  And no, I don’t want to hear that erectile dysfunction is a medical problem.  Sex is a choice, not a necessity.

Back to the subject at hand.  J. W. Manus and I discussed this on Monday – what we can learn from story-fail.

Let’s begin with a simple question — Why do we enjoy stories?

From Chuck Wendig:  “At the core of every good story is a character for whom we care.”

Soap operas are a good example of why we follow. i.e., watch or read stories. It’s the characters, baby. Soap operas are notorious for recycling story lines. Fans (not critics) remain loyal regardless because a true soap opera fan is watching to see what happens, either to a character he or she loves, or to a character he or she hates, and more importantly, how that character responds. A soap opera fan is invested in the characters and in the characters’ relationships and interactions with other characters.

That’s it in a nutshell.

What is True Blood, but a vampire soap opera?  Or The Walking Dead? Zombie soap, sometimes at its best, or as it was this past Sunday night, at its most disappointing.

The Walking Dead dropped the ball big time Sunday night. I’ve known authors to do exactly the same thing – kill off core characters– characters like Dale, who may be irritating, but serve a significant purpose in the larger story arc.

Dale represented the archetype of the conscience – a living remembrance of things past. His mere (and yes, sometimes annoying) presence reminded the other characters how the world was before the zombie apocalypse.

Dale may have become an anachronism, but he served a significant purpose. He was the one character who linked the others to their past lives.

At this point in time, even Hershel has come to accept that the new logos is survival of the fittest. Dale refused to accept that.  Does that mean he should die? Absolutely not. He was an indispensable part of the group identity.

Writers – Once your readers are invested in a character and a group dynamic, kill off a member of that core group at your peril. And only then if it serves to move the story forward, never as a plot device.

My literary criticisms are as follows:

1.  Keep your characters in character. Example– Daryl is nobody’s errand boy. He would not have done Rick’s dirty work. He would have told Rick to ‘eff off, reminding him that he, Rick, has declared himself the leader of the group, he rescued the boy in the first place, has kept him alive and now wants to kill him. Therefore, if there is any questioning and/or beating to be done, he would have told Rick to do it himself.

2.  Always keep group dynamics in the forefront of your story arc. Zombies are neutral. They are entities to be feared and killed, but they can be lumped into one big character, nothing more than a backdrop for the primary focus – the inter-personal relationships, interactions and reactions of the survivors. In order for any group of characters to be interesting and engaging, there must be tension between characters… sexual tension, dominance, leadership, a clash of personalities, moments of heroism, cowardice, tragedy and triumph.

A great deal of that tension has been lost with the demise of Dale, and if spoilers are correct, we will soon lose the biggest contributor of tension on the show (and the main reason I watch).

3.  Once your alpha has established himself as the alpha, if you, as his writer and creator, choose to knock him off that pedestal, you have two choices, kill him or utterly destroy him in the eyes of the group. Example– Rick cannot establish himself as the alpha male one night, yet wring his hands like a little girl the next, and still retain his alpha status. On Sunday night, at least in my eyes, Rick lost all credibility as the leader of this increasingly disparate band of survivors, yet the characters didn’t seem to notice.

4.  Never lose focus on your core. Follow your core characters– your alphas and your betas. Your tertiary characters are set pieces. Example– The reason I lost interest in True Blood was not because the show strayed from The Southern Vampire Mysteries. For instance, I actually liked the fact that the writers kept Lafayette alive. True Blood lost me as a viewer because the writers decided to focus on tertiary characters, a whole mess of ‘em. No sale.

My husband asked, “Why is it that the best television series seem to lose steam by the end of the second season?”

Good question.





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15 Responses to What writers can learn from True Blood and The Walking Dead.

  1. Amber Skyze says:

    I always enjoy your words of wisdom! :)

  2. Penelope says:

    Excellent points, all of them. There is a delicate balance of characters going on here….alpha, beta, survivor, those in denial, those holding onto their humanity. It all works perfectly together. Once you start killing off the characters, your balance is lost. I might be cynical, but I don’t have high hopes for this show regaining the magic. I think they lost it when the original writers were let go. Bummer.

  3. Stephanie says:

    Back in the day (Reagan Bush era) insurance companies would not pay for birth control pills regardless of the reason they were prescribed. It was some brave female Senators, like Olympia Snowe who got that changed. Never mind that it is none of anyone’s biz what goes on between me, my body and my doctor, BCPs are often prescribed for purely medical reasons like endometriosis. The Church may believe that (as Bill Maher calls them) Boner pills promote conception by older gents of means and younger women so are happy to pay for those. The Church is all about money. One trip to the Vatican will prove that.

    TV shows become boring after two seasons because of artistic boredom, pressure from viewers and pressure from sponsors. Maybe novel series can go longer because books stay on shelves and pick up a new wave of readers even when a few throw the series down in disgust. The characters are allowed to grow or devolve as publishers will allow successful writers leeway and there’s that new crop of readers.

    As long as something remains a cash cow it’s going to be milked.
    And, Alan Ball is leaving TB as a writer after this season for a new series. He will only produce. It may be that the writers will listen to the viewers.

    It’s all about money.

  4. Stephanie says:

    Oh, i wonder if the actor playing the killed off character (on TWD) was troublesome or wouldn’t renew his contract so he could go on to another project?

  5. I have to say, I generally agree, but I did not find either of the series you mentioned particularly engaging in the first place.

    I sat through the first episode of The Walkign Dead, and by the end of it they had killed the only character I found engaging or sympathetic; the horse. I felt sorry for that horse. The lead character? He could go punt himself into a plague pit for all I cared.

    I keep trying with True Blood, and I’d like to think you for making me realise why I don’t really like it that much. True Blood has always spent a huge amount of time focussing on a load of characters I’m not really that interested in. I’m struggling to get through season 2 at the moment (and have been for several months) and now I’m suspecting I’ll never bother with the later series.

    (PS. Here in the UK, contraceptive pills are available on the NHS. Almost certainly more readily than Viagra.)

  6. Jack Durish says:

    Although I don’t understand the opening comments about sex, your comments about character ring loud and clear. However, in both cases I’m not sure I agree. I can’t agree on the sex issue because I’m not sure what you’re saying. I’m not sure on the issue of character because it is a complex subject.

    Typically, characters don’t change in short stories. Character development takes time. On the other hand, when we follow a character over time, they should change. We’re all changed by life experiences unless we’re truly dense. That being said, most soap opera characters are dense and I suppose it would be “out of character” for them to change.

    Yeah, I’ll miss Dale, too. You’re absolutely correct on that one. It’s not just enough for humanity to survive. Our humanity must also survive.

    Lastly, I agree with Stephanie. The writers as well as the viewers get bored with the shows and they are kept on life support only so long as they have some ability to garner advertising revenue. Personally, I wouldn’t write for a TV series. I have the attention span of a two-year old…

  7. Hi Jack, thanks for stopping by. That’s okay, you don’t want to know about the sex stuff. I agree 100% — character growth and change happens over time, not overnight, and yes, the point of a story is that characters do not remain stagnant. If a character changes and grows, it doesn’t even matter all that much if events remain stagnant, although I much prefer my events to move forward as well.

  8. I don’t know if he’s moving on, Steph. I’d rather keep the core characters together unless a death is absolutely necessary.

  9. Hey, Steph – unfortunate on all counts, eh?

  10. Thanks, Amber – you are sweet! :)

  11. Casey Wyatt says:

    I’m bummed about Dale! And you’re right about True Blood. Maybe that’s what’s been bothering me about the last few seasons. Too many characters trying to be the alpha dog!

  12. anny cook says:

    Which is why I mostly don’t watch television… :-) Maybe most series should just be two seasons to begin with?

  13. Anny – you may be right! Can’t argue with you. :)

  14. Hi Casey. True Blood lost me after Season Two – which was a slog-fest all by itself.

  15. Hey Niall, so nice to meet you! Glad you dropped in. You know, I felt awful for that horse. Still haven’t recovered from that incident. However, TWD did get very very good after that.
    True Blood – Season Two was all Marianne all the time. Hated it.