Hey there, welcome back to the blog. In today’s post, we’ll be looking at Why True Detective is a Masterclass in Writing Interesting Characters.
Feel free to check out the video version above – what I’m calling my visual essays. I’ll drop a link at the end of the article to the playlist if you’d like to check it out. Now, let’s get back to the post!
"True Detective is a Tour De Force that can teach you a lot about writing interesting characters."
True Detective by HBO and writer Nic Pizzolatto is a tour de force which explores crime, psychology, theology and the philosophy of life and living, wrapped up in a cop buddy story that spans the years.
It isn’t a story that subverts audience expectations or avoids many tropes of this kind of drama – such as detective partners not liking or agreeing each other, but defending or protecting one another when it came down to it. A police chief who didn’t fully support them. Femme fatales being “kind of” present, harking back to Noir film.
But, one thing that True Detective does better than any other show, movie and, you could argue, even books at times…
…is that it creates characters which draw us in, whether you like them or not.
"Characters Drive the story."
One way which True Detective does this is that each scene does not have “simply moving the story forward” As its prime focus.
This is a common mistake that writers make, myself in the past included. We forget about the characters and just try to get to the main point of the scene, in order to move to the next and speed along to that finale.
But, this would be missing the entire purpose and the main drive of the audience if we write in this way.
True Detective, on the other hand, focuses on the motivation, want and need of the characters present.
During Cohle’s interview scenes, he helps the investigators by telling them his perspective of the events as they occurred. This is the framing device of the majority of the series.
However, his true intention and desire within these scenes is to get more information out of them to help with his own investigation – and the way it is portrayed… as an audience, we aren’t sure if we entirely trust his motivation… as thus far, we are only hearing the story from accounts from himself and the other major characters, who are friends… mostly.
The interview scenes aren’t just a device for the writer to speed along to the next most important plot point… they are there for us to delve deeper into the characters, start to understand the character’s perspective and question whether or not we trust their accounts as they happened.
And this pretty much exists with each character within True Detective.
Marty has this need of appearing to be the honorable lawman, but his inner desire of chasing sex with younger women is there, just under the surface.
I won’t say much about other characters – as I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t seen it before – but if you really stop to analyze each scene, this concept is present in every single one of them.
"Plot Should Come From Motivation and action."
Plot progression should come from character motivation and action – if the obstacles that the characters face make them come face-to-face with their own weaknesses, it really helps to build a believable and engaging story.
And its this confrontation of weaknesses and their flaws that also acts as a vehicle for telling the story.
Cohle and Marty, throughout the season, truly do face their own flaws and obstacles head on and change because of it. Every good story needs to have this form of character progression.
The story progressing becomes a tool for the writer to help the characters through “the unknown world” – to quote Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces – a must read book for any serious writer.
Major character flaws become corrected through story progression and also are tied into the conclusion of the narrative as a whole too – again, avoiding that specific scene to avoid spoilers, but it’s a great moment.
This takes me back to one of my previous points – story needs to come from the character, not forced upon the reader.
And I’ve said this on my social media accounts and past videos already, but it’s so true – if the audience doesn’t care about the characters, they won’t care about the story.
"Explore the Abstract."
Another reason why the True Detective is a masterclass in writing interesting characters is that the characters, especially Cohle, have intriguing philosophical views on the world.
It takes a lot of inspiration from the philosophy from Thomas Ligotti – again a great read from The Conspiracy Against The Human Race – and other philosophers such as Albert Camus and Friedrich Nietzsche.
These heavily pessimistic and often stark outlooks on the world are often not explored in drama, as producers and distributors want content to be as accessible as possible – a mistake in my opinion.
The way these ideas are introduced in the story are mesmerizing and help to build tension within the narrative as it unfolds.
Another aspect that True Detective heavily draws inspiration from is The Yellow King and Carcosa by Chambers.
Stemming from Lovecraft’s ever-expanding Mythos, as well as including elements of real culture and belief systems of the time the show is set in, help to paint this world full of intrigue and secrets.
This unique way of exploring these kinds of concepts lends itself to creating new ways to explore the scenery and locale of the Baiyous of America – exploring a wild, rural land in which a great secret resides… and in which girls have gone missing.
I think a lot of writers tend to stick with ideas or mythologies or elements of storytelling to which they are accustomed, but I’ve found exploring things in which you’re not comfortable with or seem very different to the artistic, philosophical, social and religious values to which you’re used to really does help you push your boundaries as a storyteller and enable you to be a person who has a more original voice.
After all, we all see the world in different ways and writing is all about telling a unique story in which is wholly dependent on the way we view this crazy world.