Monday, August 20, 2012

PERCEPTION and the Art of Creating Characters

I’ve always been a sucker for a mystery show involving a brainiac of some sort who helps an FBI agent or police detective solve crimes. NUMBERS, BONES, love them.  So it’s no surprise that I love the new TNT show, PERCEPTION.

Dr. Daniel Pierce is a neuroscientist who is a world-class expert on the brain, and he’s also an obsessive puzzle solver.  He works with a former student, FBI Agent Kate Moretti, when a witness or possible criminal appears to have some form of mental illness or brain damage.  

But the catch is that Pierce is a schizophrenic who is prone to hallucinations and who doesn’t have very good people or coping skills in the real world.  

He can’t tell the difference between an hallucination and a real person so he’s followed around by an assistant who verifies what is real and what isn’t and tries to keep him on an even emotional keel.

When a puzzle in the shape of a crime appears, he is prone to see elements of the puzzle as people hallucinations.  A man on a bike who appears where he shouldn’t is Pierce’s subconscious nudging him about a clue in some photos he saw that had a bike rider in the background.  

When he tries to solve a cypher, his hallucination is a British WWII cryptographer who helps him talk through to a solution.  

In each episode his emotional life and his past are examined by his conversations with the hallucination of a beautiful woman who may have been his lover years before.  

What does this have to do with writing?  The use of the hallucinations is brilliant writing, but it also shows what most writers do as we create the framework for our scenes and novels.  

Most characters aren’t just characters.  They are there to show readers the elements of the story.  

The best friend isn’t just there so the writer can have them talk about things to avoid way too much introspection from the main character.  The best friend is often there because she represents the emotional goal or part of the journey.  She pushes at the heroine’s resistance to change or whatever so the heroine must face her own issues, and the reader can become aware of them.

Another character may the literal embodiment of an opposing viewpoint.  He may represent people who don’t believe in the supernatural while the heroine is trying to face her own ability to see ghosts.  He is busy telling her that ghosts don’t exist and only people with mental illnesses see them so he’s stating many of her own fears about this new ability.

Still another may believe so much in the supernatural that her statements are so ridiculous and extreme that the heroine cringes that she may be as foolish. 

Like Daniel Pierce in PERCEPTION, a good writer must create the story as people who are part of a puzzle the reader must solve in order to see the final and complete picture of the story.

NOTE: If you are a TV STAR TREK fan, keep a close eye on the guest stars.  Many are former TREK actors from the various TREK franchises.  Levar Burton has a recurring role as the head of Pierce’s college department.

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