How to make characters your readers will love with the intensity of a thousand burning suns

Or, you know, just really really like.

My favorite television show of all time is Law & Order (Vanilla, please). I have literally hundreds of episode plots memorized. I cannot tell you how many times I have had a family member ask me, “Remember the episode where X & Y happen in the first 15 minutes? How does it end?” And I know the answer. (If you’re not yet impressed, remember that these are highly crafted mysteries, people. There are twists and turns and reversals and complicated legal maneuverings.)

My two favorite characters are Det. Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach, may he rest in peace) and EADA Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston). Every time I remember that Jerry Orbach passed away, I get a little sad. Although personal lives of the characters are not a major focus of the show, I teared up watching the episode where Det. Rey Curtis retires the other day. I flat out cry when I watch Lennie walk out of the office the last time. When Jack reunites with his daughter—and they just meet for dinner in the last minute of an episode—I am just as moved and verklempt as he is.

Yeah, I’m a girl. It’s okay.

But I didn’t fully realize my devotion to these characters, specifically Jack, until the other day when I read an article describing his successor as “a force of nature” who was riveting, and you never knew what he might do next.

I didn’t dislike the new character, but to hear that, I took umbrage, to say the least. To be fair, again, Jack had like six times as long as this character did in that office. But it’s taking all my restraint NOT to list the truly creative and sometimes insane things Jack did as EADA.

What is it about Jack that inspires that kind of loyalty from a fan like me? It’s not the actor (I do like him—but that’s because of the role). It’s not the legal maneuverings (though they make things interesting). I don’t even think it’s what he does or how he does it. It’s that he’s 1.) passionate and 2.) unpredictable.

“Unpredictable? But—but—but—our characters have to be consistent,” you might say. You’re right—well, you’re not wrong. After all, as far back at Aristotle’s Poetics, we’ve been taught that characters must be consistent.

But, Aristotle argues, they must also be “consistently inconsistent.”

And what does that mean? (Well, Aristotle means that if a character is an inconsistent person, they should always be similarly inconsistent. But that’s not really helpful.) I like to use it to mean that a character’s actions should be consistent with who they are at their core—if they are a fool, they shouldn’t suddenly become the soothsayer, or vice versa—and at the same time, they should be surprising to the audience.

The reason I love Jack McCoy (and the reason this blogger [whom I managed NOT to lambaste for his/her personal preference] loves his successor) is because we never knew what he might do next—except that we did.

We knew they wouldn’t jump off a building to win a case (that wouldn’t work). We knew they wouldn’t give up lawyering to sing with the Met, paint at the Met or play for the Mets. We knew they wouldn’t kill someone. We knew they wouldn’t go bungee jumping or out to a nice, peaceful lunch or on a pleasant family vacation (shown on the show, that is).

We knew that they did have a code of ethics and morals, but sometimes the end justified the means (and sometimes, they decided it didn’t—and we respected them all the more). We knew that they would think and be resourceful and try again and if necessary lie and mislead and fudge and regard things “from a certain point of view” a little in the pursuit of justice. We knew they’d fight against bad guys, their lawyers, and even each other for the greater good.

We knew that they would do almost anything to win when they knew they were right.

And we couldn’t wait to see what unexpected, unconventional and unbelievable thing they’d do next.

The intensity of a thousand burning suns, okay, maybe not. But it certainly worked to keep viewers tuning in for an hour a week for twenty years—and Law & Order airs in syndication and spinoffs around the world. They did something right.

What do you think? How can you make your characters consistently inconsistent—and memorable and lovable?

Sam Waterston photos by Sharon Graphics

One thought on “How to make characters your readers will love with the intensity of a thousand burning suns”

  1. Consistently inconsistent, that’s kind of a tongue twister.
    I think to have your character behave that way he has to do things that are unexpected, but as you said, not so unexpected that it’s out of character. And then give him some flaws that appeal to the reader, because we love the underdog.

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