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Friday, October 26, 2012

What the Mentalist Teaches About Supporting Characters

If you missed the first two installments of my What I Am Learning About Good Writing From The Mentalist series, here they are again:

This week I want to talk about supporting characters.

In the television series The Mentalist, the characters who are a part of the CBI team work together to solve crimes.  They play second fiddle to the two primary characters, Patrick Jane, a consultant and former psychic turned crime solver, and agent Teresa Lisbon who is head of the CBI investigation team. I already discussed Jane’s traits in an earlier post so I won’t delve into them again now, but his free-wheeling and manipulative ways of solving crimes often go against agent Lisbon’s more conventional methods of crime solving.

When the show first launched we were told very little about the CBI team.  Their personalities and background slowly emerge over time. When I work on my fictional characters, I use a Character Profile worksheet to record what they look like, their age, their history, habits and any specific gestures or expressions they use. I have all of the info at my fingertips, but don’t necessarily dump and spill all of that at once. Some of it may never be revealed, but it goes into making the characters do what they do and behave the way they should.

The better you know your characters before you start writing, the more they will dictate what they are supposed to act like once you do start writing.  Another trick recommended by professionals is to give your character a secret.

Lisbon is tough and keeps her emotions under wraps. Jane, who is an expert on reading people, struggles to know the deeper Lisbon. In one episode where they are investigating the murder of two people who planned to attend a high school reunion, Jane probes Lisbon to find out what activities she was involved in in high school. He guesses she was in band and then proceeds to suggest instruments she might have played. She denies all.

In another episode, Libson is knocked unconscious and awakens with a bomb strapped to her chest. As she and Jane race by car to meet the bad guy who claims he will detonate the bomb if she fails to comply to his demands, she frantically says a Catholic prayer. In another show, when Jane is nearly drowned, she again prays while clutching a small cross necklace, pleading “Oh please, oh please,” to God as paramedics work frantically to resuscitate him. The reveal?  She has faith in God and deeply cares for Jane.

 In this same episode we learn her mother died when she was a young girl, and in another that her father was an alcoholic. In the closing scene of this show (I think it was the same episode), she pulls a bottle of liquor from her desk drawer, nearly takes a drink, and then puts it back. (Remember, give your character a secret.) We’re left to wonder. Does she have a secret drinking problem or has she had one? In yet another, she encounters a former boyfriend and we are left to wonder if she is sorry she broke it off with him as she considers the family he has from the woman he ended up marrying might have been hers had she stayed with him.

Other CBI team characters include agent Wayne Rigsby who is boyish, clean cut, and often naïve, especially when it comes to Jane’s exploits. His area of expertise is arson. His father is a n’er do well crook who’s been in and out of prison for dealing pot and stolen goods. Rigsby is enamored with attractive, sweet Grace Van Pelt. Grace has a spiritual side and believes that some psychics are real. The writers enjoy occasionally pitting her beliefs against Jane’s, who denies there is an afterlife. Grace is also a horrible judge of men when it comes to her romantic life. Two of the men she dated, one was a fiancé, ended up being pure evil. Dating within the same department is against the rules, so when a love affair develops between Van Pelt and Rigsby and they are given an ultimatum, break it off of lose their jobs. She breaks if off claiming she wants to keep her career. But as the episode closes we see her sobbing and we know Rigsby was the right man after all.

Then there is tough as nails agent Kimball Cho who shows little emotion. He was in the armed forces and then became a cop. As a teen he was in a gang and went to juvenile hall, but later broke free of the gang. He’s got a soft spot for kids who’ve had tough lives. He ends up emotionally and physically involved with Summer, a former prostitute turned police informant. He truly cares for her, but when her antics create too much turmoil, and she deliberately tries to provoke him. He comes undone and backhands her, immediately regretting the action. Cho breaks off the relationship because he knows they will destroy each other, though he loves her.

The show also has recurring characters who make appearances from time to time. I won’t spend time on them here. But if you are planning to write a series, recurring characters, both good and bad, can add another dimension. Supporting characters can act as foils or complements to main characters. They can also be used in subplots which makes a story more interesting.  Just as we meet different characters in our everyday lives, the characters in the stories we read and write should be unique and interesting.

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