Why Nuanced Characters Matter: A Tale of Two Series

Having finally begun watching season 4 of the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars (oh Netflix, I would marry you if I could), a four-episode arc helped me decide something vital about character: the need to make characters distinct. An episode of the 2001—2002 A & E mystery series, Nero Wolfe, adapted from the novels by Rex Stout, served as an interesting contrast to those episodes, and not just because of the genre switch.

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This paragraph is a bit spoiler-y and rather long, so feel free to look away if you’re appalled or even bored. The four-episode arc features the clones fighting the enemy on a dark planet under the command of a Jedi hostile to clones. (If you aren’t sure who the clones are, you might click on the Star Wars link in the first paragraph.) See, the thing about clones is that they look the same. What a profound statement, huh? That’s what book learning does for you—enables you to come to sharp conclusions like that. The design team gave them different hairstyles and tattoos to make them look distinct. (See for example, Captain Rex and Trooper Fives below.) Kudos to the design team for that. But when their helmets are on, you can’t tell many of them apart, unless you’ve memorized the various design elements on the clone trooper armor. I know what you’re thinking: some fans probably could. However, I stopped caring (and I’m not saying you should), first, because of my confusion about who was who, especially when several clones would appear on the screen, all performing virtually the same action. Second, I couldn’t muster enough concern for the main antagonist—a Jedi. While a Jedi antagonist has shock value, I didn’t understand how the other Jedi could fail to confront a Jedi as hostile and unconcerned about life as he was. They usually noticed disturbances in the force. Yet none of them denounced him, because a decision had been made by the producers to make this person the antagonist without offering the why behind his decisions. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief, because I was not provided enough information about the character.

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Captain Rex and Trooper Fives from Star Wars: The Clone Wars

(If you avoided the above paragraph, it’s safe to look now.) In all fairness, the show has a slight handicap: it has to fit within a certain window—between the prequels Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. So the growth of the characters is limited by those parameters. Since we already know what’s going to happen to some of these characters, some of the tension is lost.

Let’s move on to Nero Wolfe. From 1934 to 1975, Rex Stout wrote a ton of books and short stories featuring Nero Wolfe. I guess you can safely say that by spending that amount of time with his main characters—New York private investigator and orchid aficionado Nero Wolfe and his operative Archie Goodwin (who narrates the stories)—Stout really knew these people.

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Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin and Maury Chaykin as Nero Wolfe

The thing is, Wolfe, Goodwin, the police officers (Cramer and Stebbins) often at odds with them, and Fritz Brenner (Wolfe’s majordomo) spring to life so vividly, you can almost predict what each would say when he enters the room—predict in a good way that is. You can do that, because the author, and in the case of the TV series, the scriptwriters, helped us know how these characters tick—their likes, dislikes, and idiosyncrasies (Archie’s swagger; Wolfe’s pursed lips; Cramer’s cigar chomping), without resorting to caricature. Even the steady parade of murderers and thieves (this is a mystery series after all) are given raisons d’être beyond the simple need to make them villains. They have plans and hopes and sorrows. We can even sympathize with them all the while rooting for them to get caught.

Writing vivid, nuanced characters a reader or viewer grows to care about is a tricky thing. I don’t have to tell you that, though I just typed that sentence. It means going beyond the initial decision to make someone a hero or a villain or other aspects that are essentially cosmetic. It means knowing the why behind that person’s decision to go one way or another. And that takes time and a desire on an author’s part to dig deeper.

Maury Chaykin as Nero Wolfe from Wikipedia. Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin from Pinterest. Captain Rex and Trooper Fives from starwars.wikia.com.