Good Bad Guys

Posted Dec 29 2011, 7:00 am in , , , , , , , , , ,

Leverage is a show that is successful in what it does, but I’m not sure it has the following it should. Sure, it’s been on for 4 seasons now and new episodes are airing on Sunday nights, but there never seems to be a lot of buzz about this show. For anyone who has ever enjoyed Robin Hood or the A-Team, Leverage is a winner. In fact, when someone asks what the show is about, I describe it as a modern-day A-Team. Outlaws band together to help the underdog. The main difference is that instead of a physical threat, it’s usually a monetary loss that the team is trying to recover.

Here’s a trailer:

The high-tech gadgets and complex cons that the team pulls are fascinating, but the real draw for me is the characters. This is not a show that follows the characters into their personals lives. You really only get to see them as they interact with each other and the marks. We see where Nate (the leader/Mastermind) lives because his home is the base of operations for the team. Other than that, we don’t know what goes on for each of the characters outside of the jobs they complete.

Instead of making the characters boring or uncomplicated, this tactic makes them that much more intriguing. We get glimpses of them and their beliefs and fears and hang-ups based on how they react to certain jobs. The way each character interacts with a mark shows you a little more about that person. It’s fascinating to watch the characters reveal themselves in small ways.

For instance, Parker is the thief. She’s small and pretty, but she’s a tomboy. She has no fear of jumping off a building or flipping over lasers to get around an alarm. But her social skills suck. She doesn’t know how to make friends. We’ve learned that she grew up an orphan and bounced from home to home, which made her who she is. It explains a lot, but when the team takes on a job that involves an orphanage, we see the impact it has on Parker. She refuses to leave without saving the kids.

Another example is Eliot. I love Eliot; he’s my favorite character. And it’s not just because he’s nice to look at. Eliot is considered the hitter, or the muscle of the team. He beats up anyone who gets in the way. He almost never uses weapons. He prefers to use his hands. He’s a soft-spoken guy with a really nasty temper.

image from Google images

But he has a strong protective streak that pops up when a kid is involved. Also, in one episode, he asked for the team’s help for an ex-girlfriend. We got a glimpse of Eliot from another lifetime. A softer Eliot.

I could go on with a lot more examples, but I think I’ve made my point. What makes this show so enjoyable for me is that the writers are masters of showing instead of telling. Each of these characters are damaged and carry some unique baggage. We are only given a moniker for them that they use to define themselves: thief, grifter, hitter, hacker. But through the small things, we begin to see them as real 3-dimensional people.

As writers of fiction it’s what we strive for in our writing every day. We want to reveal the living, breathing characters that live inside our heads, but if we just offer a laundry list of descriptors, no one will be interested for long. Learning how to parcel out the information is one of the more difficult tasks we face.

Choosing how and when to reveal character traits and backstory is hard. We want readers to know what we know so that they can understand and love our characters the way we do. The problem a lot of writers have is that they dump a character’s entire life story on the page and expect it to be necessary.

I tend to go to the other extreme and in order to avoid info-dumping, I leave too much out. Things I know and think make it onto the page aren’t really there. I try to trust my readers to figure things out and follow along without me spelling everything out or repeating myself. The problem with that, however, is that sometimes, I end up confusing the reader.

How do you prefer your characters to be written? Do you like the slow reveal, or do you prefer the writer to lay it all out at once?



5 responses to “Good Bad Guys”

  1. Liv Rancourt says:

    I’m in your boat, trying to avoid info dumps with sketchy bits of info that sometimes leave me with skeletons instead of characters. Oh, and I’ve never seen Leverage, but I thought Christian Kane was pretty cool as Lindsay in the Angel series.

    • Don’t you hate when you end up with a skeleton when you thought you had a person? I didn’t watch Angel, but I do have the DVDs, so I’ll be catching up eventually. I’ll keep a lookout for Christian Kane in it.

  2. Lynette says:

    I love the show Leverage! You assessment of the character development is right on. And it’s very much the way I prefer to reveal characters in my stories, and definitely want them to show up in the books I read. Great, thoughtful post, Shannyn.

    • Thanks for stopping by. I can’t wait to see what’s coming up next on Leverage. I’m a few episodes behind and I heard on Twitter that last week’s episode was a great one for Eliot.

  3. […] and not revealing enough. I’ve talked about this before when I talked about my love for Leverage. In that post I talked a little about showing versus telling and how a little goes a long way. […]