BBC’s The Fall: The character development of Paul Spector

BBC Two's The Fall

BBC Two’s The Fall (available on Netflix) is one of my new favorite TV shows. It follows the life and crimes of serial killer Paul Spector and Stella Gibson, the detective in charge of bringing him to justice.

Paul Spector (actor Jamie Dornan) is one of the most fascinating characters portrayed on TV, so he makes an excellent case study for good character development — whether you’re writing a novel or a screenplay or anything in between.

WARNING: Lots of spoilers for The Fall, “series” (seasons) 1-3, so read on at your own discretion.

From monster to sympathetic villain

In series one, we immediately learn who Paul Spector is. He’s a killer, no mistake about it, as we follow his perspective throughout the show. We also learn that he’s a husband and loving father. But his docility around his children only makes his actions that much more heinous and frightening.

By series three, Paul is in police custody and undergoing psychiatric evaluation. The evidence against him is overwhelming, not to mention he’s made a full confession. But as he’s suffering from amnesia (either real or pretend), we see a new side of Paul, a different kind of intimacy. There’s the intimacy of watching him strangle and beat his victims. Then there’s the intimacy of learning about his childhood and how he views himself.

Paul Spector Olivia

He’s complicated, and the beauty of his character development is that complexity makes him impossible to pin down. As the audience, we can only speculate about what’s going on his mind, the same way that Stella Gibson can only speculate (sometimes, perhaps wrongly) about what drives him. Paul continues to surprise us.

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A lesson on writing tension from a bad horror movie

Sleepaway Camp III

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. So yesterday, my fiancée and I snuggled up together to celebrate with a good old-fashioned horror movie.

Too bad it sucked.

Granted, the first Sleepaway Camp was a great movie. Some kids attend a summer camp and wear ridiculously short shorts, and one of the campers starts offing people. Classic set-up. Sleepaway Camp III was free on Amazon Prime, so we thought, “Why not?”

Ha ha.

Sleepaway Camp III follows the same premise as the first film, only the original killer, Angela Baker, has returned to do away with another generation of kids — half pretty rich teenagers from states like Ohio, half gang members and delinquents.

Angela ends up killing almost everyone in the movie, and it couldn’t be more dull. Even Angela sounds bored doing it. (“Just taking care of business.”)

The movie has no tension, the undercurrent of electricity that makes us care, worry for the characters, and squirm in anticipation. Which provides a pretty good lesson on why tension is important to any story.

Problem 1: Sleepaway Camp III is told from the killer’s point of view.

We follow Angela around everywhere, and we see everything she does. That doesn’t leave much to the imagination. She can’t pop up and scare us if she’s in every scene.

Nothing is unexpected. We know as soon as she gets someone alone what she’s planning. No surprises there.

Problem 2: Everybody else sits around.

Half the characters are “troublemakers,” but no one actually does anything. The black kid listens to rap music. The others fool around in the woods. Wow. Such behavior. Much rebelling. Aside from a fistfight fight early on, no one does much else than insult each other or make out.

Most importantly, no one makes Angela’s life harder in a way that actually counts. The kids tease her by lighting a firework in a fish. She retaliates by murdering them.

Problem 3: Angela’s actions are totally predictable.

Angela’s already a known killer who detests swearing, drug taking, fornicating, and … laziness? So we know exactly as soon as someone makes her hit list. She has no secrets left for us to discover, no mystery to her actions or words, and her moods are totally transparent. She’s practically in cahoots with the audience.

Sleepaway Camp III

Problem 4: No one notices anything.

The campers are separated into three groups, or Angela picks them off a couple at a time. Whenever someone walks by, they wonder, “Hey, where is what’s-his-face?” And Angela makes up a lie like, “Oh, she went back to the main camp,” or, “They went fishing.”

No one actually finds the corpses or sees Angela doing any wrong, so no one suspects her until she wants them to (at the end). There’s no urgency. They’re all so oblivious, she takes her sweet time.

Problem 5: Her only opposition is absent for half the movie.

The only character who stands a chance against Angela is a cop/counselor with a grudge against her. Conveniently, he doesn’t recognize her for most of the movie. When he finally figures it out, she shoots him.


How do you add tension to your stories? What’s another example of a movie, book, or show that does tension right?

‘Authors Anonymous’ and real-life critique groups

Authors Anonymous movie

After watching the movie Authors Anonymous on Netflix, I realized something important about participating in a local critique group: A little manuscript help isn’t worth suffering other writers’ neuroses.

Most writers are neurotic, one way or another. Put five to ten of us in a room together, and shit happens. Usually, that means some lively (at times heated) story discussion, and sometimes outright arguments. There are always pros and cons. The critique group is a crawl — you can get a full manuscript critique from an online writing partner in the time it would take a local critique group to do one or two chapters — but the trade-off is the atmosphere and community. It’s about being united with your fellow writers and motivating each other to improve.

One tense scene in Authors Anonymous shows what happens when that little community implodes: Jealous of another member’s success and annoyed by everyone else, one character bitches out each writer in turn (mostly saying their work is crap) before quitting. It isn’t long afterward that the whole group falls apart. Each character has too much emotional baggage to support anyone; they only end up sabotaging or demoralizing them instead.

Real life can be similar. When writers start picking fights, gossiping, or taking criticism too personally, it’s time to say sayonara. If you’re not getting emotional support from the group, it’s not worth going.

Have you ever been in a writing / critique group with personality problems? What happened?

What Daredevil can teach us about good writing

Daredevil Netflix

Last weekend, I binge-watched Daredevil season two on Netflix. And I’ve got a LOT of thoughts, guys. So many feels.

As an aspiring novelist, I try to take a writing lesson from as many sources as I can. Obviously, if Daredevil could sucker me into watching 13 hours of television in three days, it’s got some pretty good writing (and acting, and action, and … all the things).

So here are five reasons why Daredevil season two is so damn good — and yes, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. You’ve been warned.

Good villains play off the hero

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge how bad-ass Jon Bernthal was as the Punisher. Now, I’ve never been a huge Punisher fan, but Bernthal blew me away — bang.

In this new season, Daredevil faces how his presence has escalated crime in the city. With one vigilante comes another. For each criminal he puts behind bars, more take his place. And locking a bad guy away doesn’t guarantee that he won’t be walking the streets again in a month.

Frank Castle (Punisher) wants the same thing as Daredevil: to rid New York City of scum. But his tactics are different: He uses guns, and he shoots to kill. Daredevil believes in preserving human life — in second chances, in the law. Castle is lawlessness.

Daredevil Punisher Frank Castle

The best villains reflect facets of the hero and take them to an extreme. There is darkness in Murdock — season one showed us that he worries about the devil inside of him, a rage that almost convinced him to kill Wilson Fisk — but Frank Castle is what he’d become if he played judge, jury, and executioner.

But Castle is also a likable character. One we can empathize with. Daredevil believes there’s good in him. Karen sees him for the father and husband he once was — a good soldier who lost everything — even after finding herself in his crosshairs. We like Frank because, even though he’s unhinged and a murderer, we know in his own messed up way he’s just trying to do good. Real villains are relatable.

Characters have lives outside of the protagonist

Season one showed Karen and Foggy hanging out a lot, drinking and talking in Josie’s bar. We saw a huge transformation in Karen that burdened her with shame and a secret, and Foggy had to reexamine his friendship with Matt when he learned who the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen was. But season two does an even better job of giving these characters autonomy.

In fact, Karen and Foggy spend more time on their own in season two than together with Matt. They take action apart from him. Foggy realizes he can hold his own in court — that he’s a damn good lawyer. And Karen discovers she has a knack for journalism.

Although they both get dragged into Matt’s drama, not everything in their lives revolves around him. And that’s what makes them authentic.

Daredevil Karen

Change happens (a lot)

Daredevil covers more in 13 episodes than most shows manage in a full season. With action comes change — hard and fast. Matt and Karen get together and break up. Fisk is the low man in prison and then seizes control. And the law firm of Nelson & Murdock is bursting with clients and then shutters completely.

So much happens in season two because it isn’t afraid to heap conflict on more conflict — and that means moving the story forward through tangible change. And that leads us to …

Failure makes the good guys stronger

The more permanent the change seems, the more devastating it feels. Season two leaves us with the closure of Nelson & Murdock — nobody saves the firm by the end of the 13 episodes, and Matt’s relationships with Karen and Foggy are broken apart. We don’t know if or when they’ll get back together.

Yet failure makes the good guys stronger. Our heroes lose Frank Castle’s trial just when it was looking good, and the blow hits them hard. But because of his solo performance, Foggy scores a job at a high-paying firm, and he learns that he can be an amazing lawyer without Matt by his side.

Even when Daredevil fails, he comes out tougher. Daredevil versus Nobu in season two is a very different battle than it was in season one. Our hero’s got better gear — better armor and weaponry — and more experience than he had before. Physically, mentally, and emotionally, he’s better equipped to deal with whatever threat arises next.

Matt Murdock

Cliffhangers keep the momentum going

An hour is a lot of time to spend watching one episode, but all a good show needs to do to keep you pressing play is to tuck a cliffhanger into the final few seconds.

Daredevil did this nearly every episode in season two — so well that I watched six episodes in a row before taking a break. Splitting the season into two arcs — one focused on Frank’s crusade, the other more on Elektra and the Hand — gave me a nice breather in between. But the momentum never slowed.

And let’s not forget about that finale. THAT FINALE. Can I have season three now? Please?

The Maze Runner: I have no idea what I’m in for

The Maze Runner movie

James Dashner’s The Maze Runner is, well, weird.

Basically, I have no idea whether the movie — which hits theaters this Friday — is going to be awesome or The Langoliers corny. Back when I was a kid, I thought that Stephen King film was the most frightening thing ever (I mean, come on, monsters that eat reality itself?!?!), but when I rewatched it as an adult, it was goofy as hell.

The monsters in The Maze Runner — an easy read of 300-some pages — remind me a lot of those bad CGI creatures. That is, I have no idea how they’re going to manage to look cool on the big screen when their descriptions in the book are so bizarre and … kind of stupid.

Let’s back up. The Maze Runner is sort of like The Langoliers meets The Lord of the Flies. A bunch of boys are thrown into a walled-in area they call the Glade — with no memories of who they were or how they got there — and forced to investigate a deadly, gigantic maze for a way out. The maze surrounds them on all sides, so while they have to form their own organized and civil society (they even have a council) just to survive, the braver few go out into the labyrinth during the day and try to learn its secrets.

The Langoliers movie
The Langoliers: Totally not scaring after the age of 12.

Not everyone gets along, though, and that’s made worse when the newest recruit, Thomas, arrives and weird things start happening. Including the appearance of a girl — the first ever in the Glade.

Cue awkward teenage sexual feelings and, erm, telepathy.

Yes, The Maze Runner is kind of a cheesy book, made weirder by the slang the boys throw around as their own primal island language. Words like “klunk” and “shank” and phrases like “good that” are totally normal conversation. They might as well be jumping from trees and sticking pig’s heads on stakes.

But the monsters are something else. Part slug, part death-metal-torture machine, the Grievers that patrol the maze are … totally ridiculous to imagine and maybe not as frightening to picture as Dashner thought. But then again, I’m not the target age group for this book.

I plan on seeing The Maze Runner in theaters later this month, mostly because I’m just damned curious — either it’s going to be the lamest young adult movie ever (maybe dumber than If I Stay seemed?) or it’s going to be somehow totally amazing, and Grievers will become the stuff of my nightmares. I mean, I dig mazes, so anything’s possible.

Can robotic slugs freak me out? Will I ever be able to take the words “shuck-face” and “Greenie” seriously? I have no idea.

Let’s find out.