On All I Needed to Learn About Characterization I Learned from Veronica Mars

Megan and I have finally finished watching all three seasons of Veronica Mars, and were only slightly miffed (okay, heavily annoyed) by the truncated ending of the series due to, of course, uncertainty of the creators about the show being picked up for another season.

Instead of being picked up, Veronica Mars was pushed aside for such wonders as Pussycat Dolls Presents.

I’m going to go vomit now.

Okay, now that I feel better, and hopefully you do to, I’ll simply say that it’s worth your time to find a way to watch Veronica Mars using whatever method is available to you.  Unless it requires stealing, as that would probably deprive Rob Thomas of money he might get from residuals on the show and therefore he’d not be able to make any more shows like Veronica Mars or (so I’m told by Michelle) Party Down, which would be a real shame and, more importantly, would destroy my belief that artists truly can make it in this world which, since, as you know, my dream is to be able to make it in this world as an artist, would completely crush me.

But today we’re going to talk about a few things about writing that came to mind while watching Veronica Mars.

1. Complexity of Characters

After watching a bit of Veronica Mars, I wondered how the writers managed to make all the characters interesting, even the most inconsequential ones.

Of course, the short answer, given out in virtually every creative writing workshop, is that you need to make your characters round, instead of flat.  Complex, instead of simplex (B).

(Note: As has also often been stated in workshops, there are real uses for flat characterization.  It’s just that you, as the writer, should be able to do both kinds, and know when you’re doing one or the other.)

With Veronica Mars the characters are made complex simply because they have layered motivations.  Each character is a tiny mystery (or, such as with Logan, a major crime novel) in and of themselves.  With those minor characters who only show up in one episode have the face they show us (and Veronica) at first, and then when that’s revealed to be a mask, the face beneath that.  Often, there’s a third face beneath that one.

And this makes it sound simple, as though what’s happening is that we are being shown the “truth” of who these people are with every step, and that when the mask is removed it’s also thrown away, as though it never was.

But the truth of the “truth” is that each layer that is peeled away leaves its mark on the layer beneath.  Instead of tearing off a costume and revealing Old Man Withers beneath, what you’ve done is show that Old Man Withers was always somewhat of a bitter, scary ghost and what I’ve just revealed is that a Scooby-Doo analogy has limited uses.

In the unvarnished tongue: Each revelation forces the reader to re-evaluate the character, leading to a deeper understanding of that character, and a greater connection with that character, even if the reader doesn’t really like that character.

2. Complexity of Plot

As is traditional with Veronica Mars-type shows (Buffy the Vampire Slayer being the progenitor), the seasons tend to consist of a long, over-arching plot that spans all the episodes, being pushed forward bit by bit in each one, and many shorter plots that span a single episode.  The idea here is that you grow interested in the characters and their lives not just because of stand-alone events and adventures, but because you see them change over time, and you see their world evolve along with them.

In the case of Veronica Mars, this layering (The Word of the Day!) involves throwing in bits of character, plot, setting, etc. that are important to the current episode, yes, but will have larger consequences in episodes to come.  That handing out of fake ID cards in order to get into a frat party to stop a campus rapist, those cards will end up getting Veronica in trouble when the local police (headed again by her father) crack down on underage drinking.

That’s an obvious example (and a good one, yes), but the fact is that this sort of layering happens all the time in the show.  In the larger sense of the plot of the entire series, this means that the groundwork for future episodes and conflicts is being laid down right now as (what the viewer sees as) window dressing for the current episode.  The writers worked hard to make sure that each major and minor plot arc fits into the world of Veronica Mars as a whole.

And what this does for a story is threefold:

First, it makes the series cohesive in that all the actions in the world relate to, and are affected by, all the other actions in said world.

Second, it draws the viewer (or reader) through the world, eager to see what happens next because there is always something happening next.

Third, it allows emotion to build up over time.  Not only the emotional connection of the audience, but the emotional depth of the characters whose response to the present event is heavily influenced by the past events we’ve seen them weather.

As I go into revising GOD’S TEETH again, this is where I need the most work.  Instead of a collection of events that lead one to another like a picaresque novel, I need to insert the ligaments and tendons that tie events together so that each event calls forth the next necessarily.

At least, that’s the plan.  Wish me luck.

And go watch Veronica Mars.

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