So, last night I answered a question about character creation, and on my drive home from the office, I realized I didn’t really answer the question as it was presented. I apologize for that. My initial read of the question and the answer it prompted from me was really just scratching the surface of what it takes to create characters in stories. I realized that what was really being asked was about character dynamics.
So, let’s pick up where I left off in the last post: We have discovered a need for a new character, and we know what that character needs to do plot-wise in the story…but that’s only the beginning.
Now we need to flesh out that character, breathe life into it. And the question was about character dynamics – not the what of a character but a why and how.
For this discussion, let’s talk about Lexa.
So, Lexa. She serves a very specific purpose/role in the world of “The 100″ – she’s the Grounder Commander, leader of all 12 clans, which she alone was able to forge an alliance between. That’s a lot of story. But who is she?
When the writers determined that the Grounder Commander character needed to be introduced, there were so many ways that could happen. It became clear that we needed to upend the expectations people had about what the Grounder Commander would be. On the surface it seemed logical to expect that the Commander was an older man, someone who has lived a lot of life and has used his experience to forge alliances. But we also expected that Commander to be ruthless. After all, the Commander sent 300 Grounders to attack the dropship at the end of Season One. Clearly the Commander is someone who should not be underestimated.
And yet, that’s exactly what you do when you meet her. The writers determined pretty early on that the Commander should be a woman, just to go against what most would assume was a masculine role and position. That was the easy part. The more difficult part was deciding what kind of woman she was. Early on an idea was floated that the Commander was a child; Jason had the notion that the Grounders would believe in reincarnation as a way of selecting leaders, much like the Dalai Lama, an intriguing idea that made it seem possible that these tough, warrior people would actually choose to follow someone so young. Ultimately we aged up the character, as it was unrealistic to hire a 10 year-old to be the Commander, logistically. Also, we knew this was not a ‘one-off’ character. The Commander would have a role for most of the second half of Season Two, and work rules for children being what they are, it would have been very difficult to execute that idea.
Then, the discussion of character dynamics came up. We knew this Commander would be working with Clarke, and a lot of talk was specific to their relationship. How would they relate to each other? Would they like each other? Respect each other? We also knew that we wanted to introduce non-heterosexual relationships into the show, so the idea that Lexa was attracted to women came up. Everyone liked this idea a lot. And the idea that Lexa would be attracted to Clarke, who had just killed the boy she loved…well, that was juicy for storytelling. The big question was if we could tell a story about Clarke having interest in Lexa beyond their mutual respect for each other as leaders. There are to date very few leads of network TV shows who are bisexual or homosexual. This would be something “new” for most people, even if it wasn’t a huge deal for us as writers, it could be a huge deal for viewers. Fortunately, the studio and network were supportive of the story, so the writers were able to execute their vision.
In talking about those early interactions between Clarke and Lexa, it was clear that the two would approach each other cautiously. Lexa would even come to see Clarke as the leader to the Arkers, even though she spent time with Kane and Jaha. Clarke was, after all, the one who orchestrated the Ring of Fire and was responsible for the deaths of her warriors. Given what we had already learned about the Grounder culture, that act alone was enough to make Lexa consider Clarke a force to be reckoned with. It would only be through their conversations and actions through the season that these two leaders would bond on a deeper level. Clarke would finally have someone who could understand her burdens of leadership, as would Lexa (yes, Bellamy gets it too, but the story dictated he be active in the Mount Weather story, so someone else would need to fill that void in Clarke’s life).
When you talk about characters, you work hard to get into their headspace, try to understand what they are thinking and feeling in every single moment of the episode. You talk about what has happened to them in their lives, how it shaped them and how current events are changing them in small, subtle ways. Lexa explains her philosophy to Clarke in episode 209 that “love is weakness,” based on what she experienced with losing the girl she loved to the villainy of the Ice Nation. But Clarke chipped away at that – and by episode 214, it was clear when Lexa kissed Clarke that she had moved away from that philosophy enough to take that chance that Clarke might too feel a connection to her. And she does…but Clarke’s experiences through the season had changed her too – she killed Finn, and she had to heal from that, and she wasn’t done healing by the time that kiss happened. But Clarke didn’t pull away. Clarke wanted connection, but realized she wasn’t quite ready for that kind of intimacy with Lexa, though she definitely was attracted to her.
All of that was discussed at length in the room. The actors bring so much to the table though in their portrayals and no matter how much writers talk about how the characters feel and act toward each other, it goes to another level when you finally can see it on screen. And those performances certainly help shape the story and characters going forward…
I hope this is helpful to writers who are trying to understand their characters better. You have to think like them, and try out different scenarios until you get to the character dynamic that feels right. And of course those dynamics change over the course of the story. Certainly how Clarke and Bellamy interact now is far different than it was in the first episode, and it will continue to change.
The fact is as writers, you are a small god, dictating the world you create. But it is also true that when you begin to know your characters, they speak to you, and before long, it feels like the story and those characters guide you.
And that is just one of the many reasons writing is something I love so much. That feeling when the story, the characters and their scenes begin to sing…nothing else compares.