in a stately manor home, Madonna is weeping!" Quote from Sue Sylvester, Glee, The Power of Madonna
Unpredictability: What Makes Characters Interesting
by Lisa Hughey
Have you ever had a friend you thought you knew and then you found out something about them that really surprised you?
Every person has a secret passion or hidden dimension. In fiction our job is to discover what secret our character is hiding.
Creating characters who are real, fully dimensional, and not boring requires the surprise of unpredictability. Of course as writers we’re required to find the deeper meaning beneath this surface unpredictability and use that motivation to give our characters depth. That unpredictability is what can make a character more sympathetic or more likeable and hopefully more interesting.
Sometimes the secret is the source of a hidden vulnerability. Sue Sylvester from Glee is a perfect example. The writers of her character are pure genius.
Sue constantly criticizes Will Schuster’s hair, poking jokes about elves baking cookies inside and giving him shopping tips for buying hair gel in bulk. And then in the Madonna episode, we find out she is insecure about her own thin hair. Before the hair jokes were just plain mean, but they take on a whole different context based on that hidden vulnerability.
Initially Sue comes across as a horrible woman who has it out for anyone who isn’t popular. She’s the grown up example of the popular kid who makes the unpopular kids feel terrible about themselves. She seems to hate anyone who is different. When she recruits Becky, the cute little girl with Down’s Syndrome, for her beloved award-winning Cheerios squad, everyone believes she is going to do something horribly mean to her.
And then we find out that Sue’s sister has Down’s Syndrome. Watching her read to her sister is heartbreakingly poignant. Their parents basically abandoned them and Sue is both mother, father and sibling to her. She guides Becky, not always nicely, but in every interaction, the writers manage to reveal some new and softer side of Sue.
By doing this, they change her from a caricature into a more dimensional and sympathetic (sometimes!) person.
Whether it is in the written word or a visual performance, that unpredictability is what we search for in our fiction.
For your listening pleasure, here's one of my favorite songs from the Madonna episode.
Sadly, apparently, Fox doesn’t put very many video from the episodes online for people to share so you’re only going to get music, no actual video. And just to be unpredictable, it isn’t Sue. :)
ps. I only realized as I was looking for video, tonight is the Glee Finale for this season. Gleeks unite!