I think the general consensus among those writers who teach the craft is that you must read—and read widely—about the craft of writing, particularly those authors who write in your genre. But I think there’s a lot you can learn about writing from other mediums, too. Specifically television. Every other Monday, I’ll be bringing you takeaways from some of the best television shows out there. These are meant to be specific concepts, themes, techniques, etc., that a writer can learn from the show.
This week we’ll take a look at House of Cards, which does an excellent job of creating compelling primary characters with strong goals and opposition, as well as a rich supporting cast. Few shows on television have filled out their cast of characters as well as this one. Potential spoilers follow.
Previous posts of “What Television Can Teach Us About Writing”
February 29: Better Call Saul: A Study in Writing Excellent Characters
March 14: True Detective (Season 1): Creating Mood & Atmosphere in Your Fiction
March 28: Fargo (Season 1): Developing Terrifying Antagonists in Fiction
Bonus: 7 Things How I Met Your Mother Can Teach Us About Writing
For those of you who don’t know, House of Cards is a political drama that takes place in the current-day United States. Congressman Frank Underwood, a democrat from South Carolina, is the House Majority Whip who helps get President Garrett Walker elected, believing that Walker will appoint him Secretary of State. Upon being passed over for the position, Frank’s political machinations are set in motion. Appearing to be a loyal supporter of the President, Frank actually hatches a plan with his wife, Claire, who runs a non-governmental organization and uses her charity for her own power and influence, to elevate himself in the United States government. Over the course of the first two seasons, Frank is elevated to the vice presidency, and later orchestrates the near-impeachment of President Walker, before his resignation. Seasons 3 and 4 cover Frank’s presidency, with the latter focusing on his campaign for re-election.
1. Two is Better Than One
No novel is taking off without a great character to headline your story. The reader needs somebody compelling, somebody that they’re willing to follow for 300+ pages. But if you can make two—or more—compelling characters, then go for it. Just be ready to put in the work. Frank and Claire Underwood are about as compelling as you can get. While it’s Frank’s meteoric rise to the presidency that drives the show, the effect his political scheming has on Claire is just as interesting. They work together throughout seasons 1 and 2, though with much more of a partnerships or understanding than a real marriage. It feels loveless, as both Claire and Frank really only love power. I mean, they know when each other is cheating and are totally fine with it, as long as it advances their plans. Of course, things take a turn in season 3 and early season 4 when they start to butt heads and oppose each other. While season 3 lags, season 4 at least keeps somewhat of their tantalizing dynamic going—I’m thinking of when Frank purposefully undermines Claire at the State of the Union, declaring that someone else in Claire’s home district will be running for the House seat.
Generally, two strong characters means one will be your protagonist and the other your antagonist. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. You could have dual protagonists, or dual anti-heroes if you’re going for the Underwood effect. The difficult part of multiple, detailed characters is multiple, detailed plot lines. If you’re going all in with a couple of POV characters, then you need to make sure they both have satisfying, strong stories. One can’t drag, or it’s going to hold the story back. More importantly, these two characters need to have their stories intertwine in some fashion. If they’re in conflict, then their relationship is fairly obvious. But if the characters are at the forefront of the story, both ushering the plot forward, you’ve got a little more work to do. Hence why so many authors stick to one main character. Pull off two, at your own risk. Don’t take it lightly, and don’t overdo it. If readers are investing time in your novel, then you should be investing time in creating the most compelling characters possible. But don’t think you can pull off a George R.R. Martin with seventeen billion different points of view.
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2. Keep Your Characters Consistent
Every character should change, that’s a given in a story. Whether it’s for better or worse, a character is going to undergo some sort of transformation over the course of your plot. You don’t want someone to be static, after all. But their personality, their drive, shouldn’t change. The Underwoods in the White House in season 3 were significantly different from the Underwoods climbing towards the White House in seasons 1 and 2. Look, delving further into characters and their motivations is generally a good thing. But putting the Underwood’s marriage under the microscope… Why? Again, it wasn’t so much a marriage as a partnership. There’s no reason to try and figure out what makes Frank and Claire tick. It’s the desire for power, and the desire to stay on top and build a legacy:
“Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart in 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who doesn’t see the difference.”
Frank went from being a sociopath who literally killed to get what he wanted, to being a broken man, sobbing. It was completely out of character for someone who was consistently cool and calculated throughout seasons 1 and 2. Thankfully, he and Claire see more of a return to form in season 4.
You want to create a strong character arc for your protagonist(s). But there’s no reason for a character’s core values to change. If you’ve created characters with an edge, a drive for something, then make sure their desires are just always out of reach. Once they grab it, the original story arc and motivation are a little less compelling. It’s not as exciting watching Frank try to succeed in the presidency as it is seeing him weasel his way into the Vice President’s chair and then get the President nearly impeached. His rise to power happened a little too quickly for my tastes. Pacing your story properly can help to avoid this. The climb to the top is always more satisfying than the fall back down.
3. Craft Worthy Opposition
Something else that happened in season 3 of House of Cards: a lack of true opposition to Frank’s power grab. The Russian president, Viktor Petrov, acts more as a secondary villain than anything. Again, this season pivots more towards a character study, with an examination of Frank and Claire’s marriage. Ultimately, the show starts to point towards the two central powers of the story facing off with each other, with Claire leaving Frank at the end of the season. They begin to oppose each other, with Claire threatening divorce in season 4, before eventually reconciling. But Claire doesn’t represent the same type of opposition that we see from multiple characters in season 1 (with Frank feeling betrayed by President Walker), Raymond Tusk in season 2, or Will Conway in season 4. These people legitimately stand in the way of Frank’s goals. It never truly felt like Claire did, since both of them ultimately need each other.
Remember the price of creating a dynamic character: You need strong opposition. Someone, or something, needs to stand in the way of your character in this story. Vice President Jim Matthews, Walker and Tusk stand in Frank’s way of the presidency; Conway stands in the way of Frank’s path to re-election, after Heather Dunbar is dispatched. And these characters are, mostly, his equal. At least Tusk and Conway prove to be, until Tusk bows out (we’ll see on Conway). You can’t have an easy path to a character’s goals; what’s the fun in a lack of struggle? You’ll lose your reader without a dynamic conflict at the heart of your story. And that conflict should be innately tied to your character’s primary goals and objectives.
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4. Make Use of Your Secondary Characters
I think one of the best things House of Cards has going for it is a strong set of supporting characters. So strong, in fact, that they have the ability to kill off major players like Zoe Barnes and Senator Peter Russo and not miss a beat. Of course, their deaths only help build Frank’s dark, secret legacy. But it’s the intricacies of all these interconnected lives that are so fascinating, from Frank’s daily stop at Freddie’s rib joint to Doug Stamper’s strange obsessions with prostitute Rachel Posner and later the widow of a man who didn’t receive a liver transplant (that ultimately went to Frank). Characters can come and go from season to season and not miss a beat. For example, the re-emergence of former Washington Herald Editor-in-Chief Tom Hammerschmidt in season 4 is compelling, because he feels like the man to stand up to Frank and bring him down from a journalistic sense; this is the opposite of another character absent in season 3, Lucas Goodwin, who literally tries to bring Frank down with a failed assassination attempt.
Your story should be rich with characters. Remember that every character can and should stand out in some way, even those who are seemingly minor. You never know when you may need to bring someone back—even from the dead in strange, liver failure-induced hallucinations. These characters can also be windows (and call backs) to how your character has changed. Frank’s encounter with Freddie in season 4, or his brief—and terrifying—admissions to Secretary of State Cathy Durant are a testimony to this. Both are former friends (well, does Frank really have friends? Maybe pleasant acquaintances, or allies), yet Freddie sees Frank for who he really is and Frank offers a moment of dark clarity to Cathy, even if he plays it off as a joke. Your secondary characters are as valuable as your primary ones. Give them special attention. If you’re writing them into your story, there’s a reason for it. Don’t have anyone in there as simple filler.
Are you a fan of House of Cards? Let us know in the comments, and share anything you’ve learned from the show that can be applied to writing—there’s simply too much to cover in just one post. If you have suggestions for future posts in this same vein, feel free to post those in the comments, too!
Cris Freese is an associate editor for Writer’s Digest Books and the Writer’s Market series. You can follow him on Twitter @crisfreese, where you can laugh at his frustrations as a hopeless Cincinnati sports fan.