Friday, June 3, 2011

No Snidely Whiplash Here!

Does anyone reading this watch the NBC comedy "The Office"? I know, it's the absolute opposite of the paranormal stuff we like to talk about around here but I'm making a point, so work with me peoples.

"The Office" is a comedy that centers on the day to day office shenanigans of a paper company sales force. It's a weird hybrid in that its characterizations are over-the-top, yet watching it is almost painful because it feels like you know a version of every person there - the clueless boss, the guy just waiting to collect his pension, the affable cute guy, etc.

The 'bad guy' is the top salesperson of the company. He's one of those guys that exaggerates his own importance. He butts in and tries to take charge where he doesn't belong. He's high-strung and humorless. Really easy to dislike this guy, especially when you compare him to affable cute guy mentioned previously.

Then in one episode, an older woman who works for the company comes into the office in a daze, worrying everyone. They crowd around her, asking her what's wrong. She says somebody in the parking lot flashed her and scared her, and she starts crying.

Like a shot, 'bad guy' is running out of the office and down the stairs, going after the flasher. Affable cute guy just stands there, looking dazed as others try to comfort the woman while she's crying.

In that split-second, I had a huge amount of admiration for a man who I don't think I liked for even one moment before. Flip-side it, and I had some contempt for a guy I thought was nothing but cool.

Then the writer in me took over and I had to applaud the craft of the writers of the TV show. They were brilliant in their characterization and how they portrayed these men.

Thinking on it, both men were true to the personalities they had been displaying all along during the series. 'Bad guy' was always shown to be take-charge and not afraid of physically handling things. He was always very protective of what he viewed as under his control - namely the office and the people who worked there.

Likewise, affable cute guy was always shown to be laid-back and uninterested in any power struggles or taking charge. When anything was edging towards too serious, he deflected with humor and let others take the lead.

The thing is, until this episode of the series, these qualities of 'bad guy' were always shown in their negative light, and affable cute guy was always shown as the sane one in a land of crazies.

My friends, this is what they mean when they say don't make your characters one-dimensional. Even for the bad guys, it's important that the readers identify with them, if only for a moment. Snidely Whiplash twirling his mustache while the poor helpless heroine is tied to the railroad tracks will not cut it.

Books (or TV, movies, etc.) are more interesting when we have a touch of empathy with every single character. It makes the journey more real for us, more uncomfortable - in a good way - and much more satisfying in the end.

'Bad guy' still annoys me and I don't like him. I still usually thumbs-up affable cute guy's antics. But now as I watch the show and these two men, in the back of my mind the realization lingers that if there were ever an emergency situation, I'd want 'bad guy' to be the one in the office and hope affable cute guy was at home sick. It makes the show and the dynamics displayed just a little more interesting than it would be otherwise.

And that is exactly what we want our readers to feel.


  1. Great post, Danielle. I love The Office, and though that's one of my favorite episodes, I have to admit I never thought of it in these terms!

  2. Great example, Danielle! I love all the characters on The Office. Brilliant writing and the perfect actors for the parts. They all have dimension but I never thought of it that way. Thanks!