Wednesday, September 05, 2012

What "White Collar" can teach You ( yes YOU!) about characterization ....

Note: When referring to the writing behind White Collar, I use Jeff Eastin (creator's ) name to denote the team of writers which propel his creation forward....I'm a book reviewer. I'm used to having one author :D

White Collar is better written than you think it is.  Even if you think that it is the smartest thing ever.... it is smarter still.

Here's why:  White Collar speaks to the insanely imperative need to script deft characterization and have a succinct direction for your plot and characters before you set pen to paper with more finite details like, oh, I don't know: one episode  ( from a novel writer's point of view, say, a chapter).  It is so amazingly obvious that Jeff Eastin has created an entire world and that he knows each of the characters populating this universe that every character and every character's situation speaks to the careful outline and comprehension Eastin has for their individual constructs.

To add,  Eastin is a master of weaving deliciously threaded themes into the current of his story: the story of Midas, the belief that you are informed by your history and environment, the natural human interaction which can transfer into traits transposed from one party to another, an interesting thesis on ethics, the blurred line of morality, the grey areas ---- it's all there.....

This is remarkable in a medium such as television where several writers have their fingers in the creative pie.  Indeed, as an aspiring novelist, I cannot imagine what it would be like to have someone else given reign over one of my characters: to take them, marionette-like, and make them dance.  However, secure in the knowledge that Creator Eastin and team know their world so well, this works: on an individual and over-arching level.

Before you can see "That Music Box/Fowler Thread From Hell" ---consider this.  Consider how WC plays with conventions.... while still feeding into the popular demographic and the need we all have for seasons to end on high suspense and string us along, week by week, given slow, steady tosses of crumbs like Hansel and Gretel mid-forest.

Eastin et al write for the USA network: renowned for separating their "seasons" into two: breaking in the summer, in White Collar's case and resuming in Winter.  Thus, Eastin has to be well aware that he will have two major breaking points. In order to woo back the audience ( if Matt Bomer's smile was not enough), he has to plan two plausible breaks.  He has to make his characters colour outside the lines enough or dapple in trouble enough to leave the audience hanging without ruining the rest of his structured season with a rapid denouement favouring plot over development.

If you have solid characterization and, more still, a solid understanding of each of your characters and how they work in your little world, your puppet show, then this will be a smooth transition.

Consider this scene:  you can pick any scene really and it will have some level of revelatory moment; but this is from Season II.  Peter's background as an accountant is brought to light. Not the prime focus usually; but mentioned so that we are ready for this episode. Further, the episode (to dig deep into character remembrance) has him drinking Italian Roast espresso: one of the first things we realize that he likes upon visiting Neal for the first time and our first inclination that though a steady, hard-working agent he is enamoured with the finer things that Neal possesses ( or steals).  In these slight-of-hand ways we are led towards the moments where Peter will cross lines and blur morality into Neal's world.  Blink and you'll miss it; but he NEVER acts 'out of character' even when he surprises us:

Eastin knows what his audience wants and yet he never gives all of it to you.   From the beginning, he has been dropping sly, small hints about where the story might go.  He throws in a few curveballs: streaming the plot to the side and keeping you on tenterhooks; but the ever-important arch; the ultimate manifest of his character's lives as a whole are pulsating there like a flounced basso continuo beneath the surface.

Most television shows would love the idea of exploring a main character's background. Especially if, as is the case with master con Neal Caffrey, the main character is a veritable smorgasbord of aliases and noms de plume.  We want to know everything about Neal; we want to know the intimate details ---even the details that super-agent Peter Burke, FBI, couldn't detract when he was tracking Caffrey.
Details such as Neal's family.  Eastin does well at throwing this plot detail in like a sprinkling of salt in an already flavourful dish.  In season II,  Neal mentions his father.  If you were half-paying attention while knitting or cooking or doing handstands against your wall,  you might even have missed it.  We learn that Neal's dad died when Neal was very young and that his father was a corrupt cop.  We learn that Neal believes that one is a product of their environment and that he feels almost preconditioned to lead the same dissolute lifestyle. We know that Peter disagrees.

These seeds are planted.  In another show, a lesser show, the next episode would dive right in for immediate viewer satisfaction and thus the second half of a storyline of a season might be born: bring in the family history, figure out the rough and tumble way it attacks our character and have a rip-roaring finale with a family member introduced ( I'm looking at you, Grimm) Oh revelations! We love them.  Instead, Eastin let the pot stew for a bit. We're in season 4 and we're finally learning about Neal's history.  The entire focus of every storyline, however, is not pinpointed towards that plot point for instant gratification.

There are eight bazillion reasons why White Collar is well-written; but the most influential aspect of the show is its careful characterization and ability to choose character over plot knowing that if you excel at one, the other can be painted in later to great aplomb.

We're talking deft characterization. Down to knowing a character's shoe size ( as Peter knew Neal's when he was tracking him ) to their favourite ice cream ( bubble gum, Mozzie!) to what vocabulary they would use.  As a writer I love the moment when my characters separate and start talking on their own: with their own inflection, their own choice words, their own spirit or sass. Consider the choice words Mozzie uses --- Mozzie has a vocabulary of his own down to descriptors.  Consider the contractions that Peter uses while Neal still holds the pretense of being somewhat more upper class ( as bespeaks his life as a high-class White Collar con )..... the attention to detail, the firm grasp of each character's motive and how they bleed into each other in a sort of extended, rotating carousel is unparalleled.

We're not talking BBC Sherlock here, kids.  That's brilliant for a different reason: the updating of a century-agnostic story and the medium of adaptation. We're talking about an American police procedural which is deceptively fun and a lot like cotton candy; but which has inspired me to spend more time internalizing CHARACTER --- what they say, how they say it, how themes suggest plot. Moreover, it inspires the sprinkling of a strong hint or two into a veritable jambalaya and letting it soak up flavour under the perfect moment when you can extract and taste....

Anatomy of a Scene from @jeffeastin 's twitter account -- the process in writing 
We're into a really juicy part of the story now, boys and girls, and I know that fair Eastin has our entire path plotted out for us.  We'll keep going back to Peter and Neal's on again/off again relationship and myriad of trust issues because it has enough quantifiable believability to lead us on.  With all great characterization comes reader/viewer/audience investment.  And guess what? I'm invested ( and if you're reading this, you probably are too)


Jess said...

Yayyyyy. Bravo.

Sherry said...

Yup. Daughter and I are watching season two now, and we're invested. I'm glad to hear that you're farther along and still seeing that the writers have a plan and that attention to detail that makes the show so much fun.