What Do You Know? You Don’t Know Nothin’

aka Lord! we know what we are, but know not what we may be.

On Meg’s recommendation, I mounted the ol’ iPlayer and caught up with Silk. Although I can almost see the character briefs floating in front of me (“Handsome, smart and sophisticated Clive has every advantage a top class barrister could want. Yet he is embarrassed, rather than encouraged, by his privileged upbringing and fights to…”), it’s a compelling drama that engages with contemporary issues without losing sight of its role as entertainment. The world of each case is established quickly and reinforced continuously, plots shimmy without seeming soap and character actions have wide ranging and lasting consequences. Nice work, Mr. P. Moffat.

The frustrating thing about writing character is that there’s an expectation that the author knows their character inside and out on a factual level, which in turn passes for absolute knowledge of personality and future action. What a fallacy. I would argue that you don’t even know your parents or siblings as well as you think you do. Their histories to you are still patchworks, and their character shifts continuously in tiny, inperceivable ways. Mounds of character fact sheets might help when starting out and certainly inform plot, but I think it’s dangerous to rely on them because it suggests that writers are magicians of humanity and can understand everything there is to know about a person in the short space of time that you’re writing. “She acts like this because this happened to him in the past.” No. Not necessarily. You can’t trace and explain everything. At best, you have an incomplete representation…a complex one if you’ve done your job, but still not an understanding.

I do things for stupid reasons. I don’t know why I do them sometimes. I regret them when I do. I bet you do too. There are experiments that suggest that we perform actions and rationalise them later. That, to me, is one of the most phenomenal suggestions I’ve ever heard. You are not a rational person – merely a constant apologist for your mind. Or to restate that: Even you do not know what you are going to do. 

Character is action we are told. It has to be. It’s the only way both you and the audience can be on the same page. It’s no good for someone to walk out of a cinema saying “didn’t really see what that guy was about” and you to chase them screaming “but he loves knitting on Friday nights!” If he’s a knitter, make that fucker knit. And yet…there’s a space there for a certain complexity. If you have a character who talks about knitting all the time but never does it, that’s vastly more interesting (on a character level not – clearly – on a story one). To me, that suggests the person is less than a hero, more than a trope…there is very human disconnect between intention and action that can be fascinating. That gulf between action and intent is where all our dreams and failures live. It’s irrational. It’s messy. It’s wonderful.

That’s why you could know what Policeman Two had for breakfast every day for the last twenty years, but if you knock out a whole drama where a character never surprises you with either their action or response, I’d suggest that character is dead on delivery. Or possibly an accountant.

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