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Why We Should All Let Our Characters Fail: Lessons from THIS IS US

I don’t know about you, but I’m the worst at tolerating life’s in-betweens. The last week before I had my baby? Torturous, made worse by an ear infection and fears about the baby’s wellbeing. The last week before getting married, moving to Oklahoma, and then moving to Alaska—they’re all the same story. I am an impatient person and in-betweens torture me. This last month, I was in such an in-between. Along with the rest of my immediate family, I was waiting to move into our brand-new house. The closing date kept moving just out of reach, and there came a point when I couldn’t organize or get rid of any more stuff because there was nothing else I wanted to get rid of.

All I could do was politely (I hope) hound my poor realtor about pinning down a closing date and endure the familiar stirring, disorganized sensation in my brain that comes with in-betweens.

Oh, and watch This Is Us. I’d heard from VCFA friends that this show was well written and engaging (thank you for the rec, VCFA friends!), so I watched it all. As in, the entire two seasons that are out there. In less than a month. All accomplished while my son took his naps or after he went to bed. I didn’t read any books. I just stepped fully into my millennialness and binge-watched a TV show*.

(ATTENTION: MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD for This Is Us. If you haven’t seen the show, proceed with care!)

And I haven’t been so immersed in TV since I first binge-watched Downton Abbey in 2012. From the first episode, This Is Us made me laugh and cry. It took me a minute to figure out that Jack and Rebecca’s story takes place in the early ’80s—at first I was like, wait, why aren’t they considering a c-section for someone who’s having triplets? And then my jaw dropped when someone lit up a cigarette in the hospital on the other side of the nursery glass. (Ah, the good old days, when toxins could legally be released into the air just inches from newborn infants’ cribs.)

I figured it out pretty quickly after that, as I’m sure you did too if you’ve watched the show. You learn that the four different sets of characters you’ve seen in this first episode are all intertwined in the most beautiful way.

It’s a story told from these four viewpoints/lenses: Rebecca, Kate, Randall, and Kevin. As so many writers know, multiple viewpoints can be tricky. I had two viewpoints in the original manuscript of BLACKBIRD, BLACKBIRD, but after talking with my agent decided to cut one because it simply didn’t carry the weight it needed to. As This Is Us continued, I kept waiting for one or more of the characters’ narratives to bore me, as they have in shows (and books) past. But that didn’t happen. Each time one narrative switched to another, I both felt sad at the ending of the previous narrative and excited to see what happened next in the new one.

This, my friends, is a great accomplishment. And I think one of the reasons it works so well is that the writers of the show aren’t always nice to the characters. Big bad things happen to them. Small bad things, too. And also big and little good things. Isn’t that how life goes for many of us?

For example: in one scene, Kate gets flustered when her mother Rebecca, once an accomplished singer, comes to Kate’s first singing gig. Kate has a lot of baggage with Rebecca and ends up leaving angry after Rebecca gives her advice. Rebecca—a generally well-liked character—turns to Kate’s boyfriend, Toby. She asks him if she missed something. Basically, she’s asking him to side with her in seeing that Kate is the one with issues, not Rebecca. But Toby shuts her down quick, saying that he is, and always will be, #TeamKate. While watching this scene, I thought, ouch! I could see myself in both Kate’s and Rebecca’s shoes, and I felt ashamed for Rebecca. But I love that Toby is strong in his loyalty to Kate. And I love that Rebecca fails, in that moment, to find an ally in Toby. She handles it with grace, realizing the mistake she’s made and backing off.

In another scene, Rebecca visits Randall’s birth father, William, when Randall starts getting curious about his birth parents. William gets excited that Randall’s asking about him and brings up the possibility of meeting his son, of being involved in his life. But Rebecca freaks out and leaves while William is finding a gift he wants her to at least take to his son. Upon discovering that Rebecca has fled, William cradles the gift in his hands—a book titled ‘Poems for My Son’—and weeps. (I wept, too.) Rebecca failed to hear him out, which means he will not get to meet his son. This moment—this choice, this failure—has a thunderous impact on the lives of each character in the show.

Other examples include: Kate failing to get a singing part she really wanted. Randall (as an adult) being unable to immediately reconnect with his mom, Rebecca, after he finds out the secret she’s been keeping all his life. Kevin losing his temper on the set of his popular sitcom, The Manny, and wrestling with the challenge of losing a big paycheck or continuing to do a show that makes a laughingstock of him. A smoke alarm battery failing to get replaced…

The thing is, failures and bad decisions push characters to their lowest places. And from there, we get to watch—or write—to discover how they will rise again. So, writers, let your characters fail. Let them get disappointed by their own family members and friends. Let them lose arguments and jobs and solos. (Think of all the times you’ve failed at things like this. What did you do next? How did it change you?) Let bad things happen to them, and then watch and see how they deal with what they’ve been given.

Whatever happens, I promise it won’t be boring.

 

*Can I argue that binge-watching, if done every so often, is a pretty great thing to do? I don’t watch a lot of TV, but when I do, I binge watch a whole show. And then I’m done for several more months. Anyone else do this? Anyone else love it as much as I do??

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