For the glory of the characters: Glee

GleeIn a rather embarrassing situation that I cannot entirely explain, I am a huge fan of the TV show Glee.  It’s a ridiculous show about the members of the school Glee Club and their lives in the social sub-basement of High School. They work their way through the traditional misfit hallways that almost all of us walked, but break into song far more often than I ever did. These songs are covers of everything from classic rock to current pop, and they are just endlessly inventive. The cast has a wicked set of pipes on them, and in a few cases have cranked out a cover I like better than the original.  Heresy.

“That was the most offensive thing I’ve seen in twenty years of teaching. And that includes an elementary school production of Hair.”
— Sue Sylvester

The stories are silly and often horribly contrived, but other than music the thing doing the heavy lifting on this show are the insane characters.  Nearly every one of them starts as a cliche, then dials it up just one notch into the absurd to make a thing of beauty. Sue Sylvester is the high-school cheerleader coach (the Cheerios), with an obsession for personal glory and destruction of the Glee Club, and a conviction that disabled access ramps at the school encourages laziness.  Emma Pillsbury is the school guidance counselor, with a fear of germs and an agreement to marry a man if she never has to touch or live with him. Kurt Hummel is a gay fashionista who took a Slushee facial for a friend, and a great football kicker when he can warm up to Beyonce. They’re all brilliant, and I’m endlessly fascinated by the way they are written and the energy the actors bring to the roles. It looks to me like they’re having a hell of a lot of fun.

My body is like a rum chocolate souffle. If I don’t warm it up right, it doesn’t rise.
— Kurt Hummel

Writing extreme or challenging characters is one of my biggest struggles. I can make up some crazy stuff, but then often have difficulty working it into the story. Or I fear I’ve gone too far (or added in something pointless) that will annoy the reader so I back off and they become more vanilla. I know full well that having a strong character with a specific Point of View, quirks, perspectives, and oddities is the fuel of great stories, and great dialogue, but it is far easier to say than do. So I’ll keep working on it, and in the meantime keep watching Glee for inspiration.

…provide what exactly? The understanding that money is the most important thing – or the idea that the only life worth living is one that you’re really passionate about?
— Emma Pillsbury

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Extreme Characters: Jim Profit

Some of the most interesting characters we encounter in literature and film are those that are well outside the norm. They are not like anyone we know, and are probably not like anyone we could ever be.  How do such extreme characters impact the stories they are in?

Are your own characters this interesting?  Don’t be afraid to challenge the limits of what makes a good character. One good one can make and change your entire story.

In this case, the character is a sociopathic businessman from a little known TV series: Jim Profit.

Jim Profit was a VP at the mega-corporation Gracen & Gracen. When he was born his father didn’t know how to raise him, so put him in a cardboard box shipping box (from Gracen & Gracen) with a hole cut out so he could watch television. Finally escaping his abusive father, he worked to burrow deep inside the company whose logo adorned his childhood prison. A master manipulator and functioning sociopath, he still sleeps naked on the floor of his plush condo in a cardboard box.

Blank Canvas

If someone grew up in Cape Cod as the son of a famous nerosurgeon, we would have certain expectations. Or if they grew  up in a hippie commune in the 60s.  What do you expect of a boy who grows up in a cardboard box, raised by a television?

With less of a frame of reference for the audience to identify with the character, the writer must work harder to fill in the details. It also gives the writer freedom to write those details however they see fit. Does a character raised by television grow up to be a babbling idiot? A trivia superstar? An obsessed sociopath? You could make an easy case for each. Stretching your character’s limits provides a much broader, cleaner canvas for you to make your sketch.

Intriguing Motives

When we identify with a character, like the hardworking handyman or the shyster lawyer, we can make assumptions about their motivations. But what motivates someone like Jim Profit? As you watch his schemes unwind in the show of framing coworkers or saving an executive’s marriage, you can never be quite sure what Jim is up to.

With a familiar character, these twists and reveals may seem like cheats. When the character is so strange, so unknown, they are more readily accepted. Sometimes you’re never quite sure which of Jim’s motives are real… and sometimes wonder if he even knows.

Gray Morality

Morality tales can be great stories, but they are also well worn paths. There is a whole region further off the trail that is far less explored. Many of Jim’s action have both good and bad outcomes, so is he a good or bad person? What is he capable of? Is he really amoral, or just incredibly true to his own definitions? You can put characters like Jim in situations where you would never find either the White Hat Hero or Black Hat Villain.  In turn, this leads to a wider range of stories you can tell.

Sadly, the show Profit was canceled after one season in 1996 so we never got to see Jim’s story arc complete. I think he was just too early, as dark shows like Dexter now thrive. He has remained a cult favorite, and Profit keeps resurfacing on cable and on a DVD release in 2005.  People remember the extreme characters, so don’t be afraid to stretch.