Characters on A Wire: A Study of HBO’s “The Wire”
By: Michael James Greenwald
Well, Happy Sunday Funday everyone!! And Happy Valentine’s Day to those who celebrate and Happy Anti-Valentine’s Day to those that don’t. For my topic on this glorious Sunday in Chicago, I was going to select love…love, love, love. But love is theme, love is emotion, and this week, my pets, we are discussing characters, and I had a revelation on Thursday night while watching my favorite show of all time, “The Wire”, which really folded nicely into this week’s topic, CREATING SOLID CHARACTERS.
Today we will be studying the enemy: television writing.
I will present a short sequence in two episodes from season 4 of The Wire (Episodes 46 and 47) then we’ll talk about some of brilliance in the writing and how we can steal from it.
Basically, the show is about the law and the street in the inner city of Baltimore. Cops on one side and highly organized drug organizations on the other side. Characters are either on the side of the law or the side of the street, though lines are blurred throughout.
Chris Partlow: Mid 30′s, enforcer for drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield, cold, calculated killer
Michael Lee: 14 year old “street kid”, who takes care of his little brother Bug, has a drug addicted mother, and is wary of adults
Cutty: Former enforcer for drug kingpin Avon Barksdale, did prison time and came out to build a boxing gym for disenfranchised inner city youth
Bug: Michael’s little brother
Michael’s Step-Father: Bug’s dad, not Michael’s, has been in prison for a long time
Snoop: Chris’s partner, a female enforcer for the gang
We follow MICHAEL as he deal with pressures at home (his mother, who sells their groceries for drugs) and pressure from the street (the drug dealing game). He’s a quiet and shy kid, but has taken over a parental role for his little brother BUG and begins boxing at CUTTY’S gym and shows an aptitude for the sport, yet for no good reason, he balks at all attempts by CUTTY to assert himself as a father figure role in his life. For instance, he bolts CUTTY’S van when he drives him and another boy home from a boxing fight rather than be alone with his boxing coach and whenever CUTTY puts his arm around MICHAEL, MICHAEL shrugs away and appears very uncomfortable. No explanation is given, yet we wonder. In addition, as his peers fall into roles as drug dealers, MICHAEL refuses to do so, even going as far as to decline a sizable cash present from CHRIS and the drug kingpin Marlo, even though every other kid takes the money and standing his ground could very well lead to violence upon him. Seeing his boldness, CHRIS tries on multiple occasions to recruit MICHAEL into the role of his protege, yet MICHAEL spurns all his advances.
We follow CUTTY as he struggles to teach hardened street kids boxing skills and keep them away from the violence that surrounds them. He reaches out to MICHAEL, in what appears to be a parental way, but when MICHAEL spurns him for no good reason, we begin to doubt CUTTY’S motivations.
We follow CHRIS as he basically kills anyone who stands in the way of his boss building a drug empire in Baltimore. He’s cold and calculated (watching him, you shiver, trust me), yet when it comes to killing his victims, he takes care to execute them in a way where they feel the least amount of pain, shooting them in the head. He has spotted MICHAEL and seeks to recruit him as his protege.
MICHAEL’S step-father returns home from prison, and though MICHAEL’S mother promised her two sons she’d never let the man come back to them, he moves back in. He acts very friendly to the boys, picking BUG up from school and helping the young boy with his homework, yet MICHAEL acts very coldly toward him and begins to have trouble in school. MICHAEL’S step-father tells MICHAEL that he has returned home to take everything over and he wants MICHAEL to pay him money that MICHAEL earns from the street for living in “his” house.
MICHAEL is provided several options to deal with his situation. He can talk to his teacher in school, ask CUTTY or CHRIS to help him. The first two choices are obviously the correct ones, but ultimately MICHAEL goes to CHRIS and asks him to help him.
In this scene, CHRIS and his partner-killer SNOOP stand in the shadows as MICHAEL points out his step-father, who’s buying drugs on the corner. In three short lines of dialogue, MICHAEL and CHRIS’S characters are developed more than they have ever before.
MICHAEL: I just want him gone, away from me and Bug.
SNOOP [Incredulous]: Why? What the hell he do to you?
MICHAEL opens his mouth to say, but can’t. CHRIS and MICHAEL look at one another. MICHAEL lowers his head, obviously ashamed. CHRIS’S facial features tighten.
CHRIS: We take care of it, boss.
In the next scene, CHRIS and SNOOP lead MICHAEL’S step-father down a dark alley, guns drawn. CHRIS is drilling MICHAEL’S step-father about whether or not “he likes boys.” MICHAEL’S step-father denies having ever touched the kids. At the end of the scene, CHRIS pistol-whips MICHAEL’S step-father in such a vicious, horrifying way, even SNOOP, a hardened killer herself, stares on in shock, as CHRIS beats the man unrecognizable.
What can we, as writers, gain about how to build characters from these two short scenes (and, I realize, the episodes before these which laid the framework)?
1) Situations must always, always place incredible pressure on your characters.
As people, we learn the most about ourselves when placed in pressure-filled situations. Do we run away? Do we drink malt liquor? Do we stand tall and face the pressure directly? Do we create to-do lists?
Putting a character in a situation where they must choose a direction will illuminate depths of characterizations that can never be reached by saying: MICHAEL was molested as a kid so adult male attention makes him leery. Showing MICHAEL shrugging CUTTY’S arm off of him and bolting from the van to not be alone in the van with the man reveals this character depth in an impacting way.
The more pressure from the most angles will create a tension the reader will feel. I mean, MICHAEL has pressure at home from his horrible mother, pressure from having to raise his brother BUG, and a constant lure from the street.
2) Good ambiguity is your friend.
Question: Do we know MICHAEL was molested as a child? Do we know CHRIS was?
I don’t think so.
But we think there’s a pretty good chance one of them or both of them were, and we salivate with the idea of not knowing, don’t we? We want to know! We need to know! But the writer is not giving us the satisfaction of knowing, and this drives us crazy…in a great way. I watched this episode three days ago and find myself wandering off in the shower, while munching on a bologna sandwich, or before going to sleep, wondering: was CHRIS molested? was MICHAEL?
This is good ambiguity. Don’t feel like your readers need to “get” everything. Present credible situations which give your characters opportunities to react and see what happens. Life is not cut and dry, black and white; life is blurry and gray. Your goal is to present your scenes in this fashion.
3) Be so very specific
This is actually a Jim Sallis mantra, which I listened to, when in his class, and believed I understood it, but now realize it takes a lot of practice to be as specific as you need to be.
This is what I mean. If we hadn’t been presented the way CHRIS usually executes his victims–promises of pain-free death followed by a professional double-tap to the head–then we wouldn’t have been able understand the impact and reasoning when he pistol-whips MICHAEL’S step-father. The depth of character only opened up once we understood context.
Same with MICHAEL. Writers took care to present MICHAEL as an amazingly responsible older brother, great friend, skilled boxer, intelligent student, tough kid, so when his step-father was introduced into the mix and he lost his brother, withdrew from his friends and boxing and school, we understood, without the writer saying, MICHAEL is having difficulty dealing with his step-father being home because the man’s a big jerk and quite possibly might be a molester.
As Jim Sallis always said, “We don’t need that. We got it; we’re there.”
4) Make your characters walk-the-wire
You ever see that doc Man on Wire, about Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in NYC in 1974? Well, take a look at the picture on the left. See, Philippe? That’s where you want to place your characters. On a wire, nearly 1400 feet from the ground, teetering to the left and to the right, dealing with high winds, birds, rain, balance, on a quest to reach the other side.
What is at stake for the Philippe Petit?
His very survival.
The stakes couldn’t be any higher, could they. How about those stakes for MICHAEL and CHRIS. The same, aren’t they.
And that’s not to say every writer needs to write a gritty, inner-city crime drama. Because there are stakes just as frightening as death. And it is up to you to determine what those are for your characters. Loss of love is pretty horrifying to some. Debt. Marriage. A child. Abandonment. Loss of powers.
Whatever the stakes are for your characters, place them on a wire 1400 feet from the earth and toss every obstacle at them you can think and see what they do.
5) The past is the present and future
Everyone of our characters has lives before we discovered them. They were all babies, children, teenagers (AYYYYKKKKK!!!), maybe mothers, college students, acne-covered wizards…
We might begin a story when a character is 80 years old, but whatever happened before our readers join our characters on whatever journey will place them on a wire, is vitally important. As writers, we must know what our characters childhood, high school years, college dorm time, was like.
Now, do we need to provide a timeline? No. Do we need to have like forty flashbacks to when our 80 year old character was being spoon-fed plums by their now long-dead Aunt Carol? Probably not. But we, as the writer, must know how the past shaped our characters into the decision-making people they are now. So when we show the specific details of their lives, put them on the wire, put incredible amounts of pressure on them, we’ll have a much better grasp on what they’ll do, and we can then see their decisions better.
MICHAEL may or may not have been molested in his youth by his step-dad. But something sure happened to make him wary of adult male attention. Something happened to cause him to go as far as to succumbing to the gang life he’d spent all his energy avoiding when his step-dad comes back. We don’t know anything about CHRIS’S childhood, but something drove him to become the psychopath he becomes, and something even more terrifying must have happened to drive him to react out of character to even the suggestion MICHAEL’S step-dad touched him.
I hope this blog will drive you to think a bit more about your characters, because I don’t care whatever anybody says, characters, not plot, drive stories. The Wire writers created characters so riveting I stayed up late at night thinking about them, and as writers, there isn’t anything we could wish for more.
I wish you all good words!!!!!