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.
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.