Aug 11, 2009

Rule Of Thumb: Reactionary Devices

Aug 11, 2009
For me, balancing a cast of personalities is hard work. And though creating a strong line-up of characters that bounce off each other is really satisfying, I still find it a frustratingly... instinctual process.

Without writing half a dozen episodes, I find it an uphill battle to tell a) If they're working and b) If they're not, what's missing. The only thing to do is to 'feel it' - to play with the characters over and over in my head and judge it by instinct.

'Feeling it' I believe to be a vital part of creating - but I also find it can be the most untrustworthy. I try whenever possible to partner it with some kind of flexible rule, tick list, or template to fall back on. For me, that is why I find 'rules of thumb' important - it's about balancing the right side of the brain with the left, and creativity with structure.

In some ways, I picture writing like journeying through a dark cave, feeling your way by instinct and talent, and navigating through a knowledge of structure and formula. I find having rules of thumb to be like having emergency flares, able to light a small bit of the cave and make sure I'm on the right track.

While balancing a cast's personalities, instinctually I could outline some vague ideas about contrast, overlap and conflict but for this post, I thought I'd copy down the only solid light source I have for balancing personalities: The Reactionary Device.

Let me give you some examples of a Reactionary Device from a kid's show we're writing:

Character #1 is monumentally stupid but also sweet, naive and child-like.
That's his personality.
He is always eager to help, but he usually makes things worse - often by helping the wrong side.
That's his Reactionary Device. It's a reaction I can use in most situations if I need it.

Character #2 is boring, grouchy and safety conscious.
That's his personality.
If something doesn't make sense he'll complain about it, ignore it, or try and fix it.
That's his Reactionary Device. Very useful in a world based on silly cartoon rules as I can use it to both drive him towards something, or drive him away from something.
Now imagine all your main characters are in a situation not unlikely in your idea: They've just found out one of them is a traitor, or a Doctor has just told them someone died, or even a genie has just given them one wish each.
A character without a Reactionary Device would act very predictable, either being suspicious of the others being the traitor, or reacting with shock at the death, or simply making a wish. I believe a cast of characters that all react the same way to an event is not only boring to watch, it's hard to write. Once or twice while I've been writing a scene and I need to get my characters from A to B, I'll realise that none of them would push the others to 'B' because I had no Reactionary Devices to exploit.

Now obviously not everyone can react unpredictably to everything, that would be insanely hard to create and be very strange to watch but in every situation I aim to have at least one person act interestingly.

The Cat's crippling narcissism, Toby Zeigler's love of debating, or even Marty McFly's inability to cope with being called yellow are all excellent Reactionary Devices because they allow the writer to 'control' the character.

Arrested Development is one of the best study cases for this. Every time something happens, one or more of them will react in a plot altering way, be it the mother's need to manipulate, or Buster's need to prove himself or even Michael's need to fix everything. Imagine if the characters from Arrested Development found out one of them is a traitor, or if a Doctor told them someone died, or even if they all got a wish.

They almost write themselves.
EDIT: I came across this old Homestar Runner cartoon: 'Homestar's Pumpkin Carve-Nival' - what it does well is illustrate how having a well defined, non-overlapping cast writes itself.
If you had to write a scene/short/episode where all your characters carved pumpkins, would your characters alone give you enough material?


  1. that was very insightfull and handy as usual (u guys could write a book on writing), thankyou.
    im looking forward to ur show, is fox the child like character? i like him already cause he wears a head band.

    do you guys hate two and a half men, i really hate that show, wow, charlie sheen plays him self...
    rant end.

  2. Ha ha! Yeah, Two And A Half Men is a truly abominable show. Am I the only one who is more disturbed than amused at the prospect of an overweight child living with sex-obsessed Charlie Sheen?

    Oh, and yes. Fox is the child-like character.

    How did you post a comment so fast?! This entry was, like, JUST posted! What are you, The Flash?

  3. lol, im doing some stuff on the inter-web and on my blogger dashboard of blogs i follow, it shows me who is posting,

    back to two and half men, they always present marriage as bad and I relised i hated this show so much wen reading mutt's reveiw of bench warmers where i learned people make Ego films, and this is the bigggest ego show ever, probably written by sheen him self,
    and to relate it back to this post alan's reactionary device to charlie's behavior is the whole show pretty much.
    Charlie has sex with so and so's school teacher
    Alan reacts in disbelief...blah, hate it.

  4. Yeah, that's probably a case of character's having only one, really predictable reactionary device and only being put in one or two types of situations which always warrant the same reaction.

    To me, that's a sign of lazy writing.

  5. Strangely enough, I like 2 and a half men because I find it easy to relate to. my parents divorced when i was 3, and they hated each other, just like Charlies brother and his ex wife.

    My mum as a single parent was kinda like a female mix of Charlie and his brother, in that she had a string of poorly chosen boyfriends whom she often relied upon for financial support. I was the cynical child in the middle, annoyed that my parents saw me as more of a weapon to use against each other rather than a child to be loved. although I wasn't quite so fat.

    2 and a half men shows these things in a humerous light, wich apeals to me, despite the one dimensional characters who always behave the same way and the crappy writing. Although I can see why people who have no way of relating to it would find it terrible, perhaps the shows success is derived from a target audience of children with divorced parents who some times have a cynical sense of humour.

  6. Poor Zack, that makes a lot of sense. I have never watched the show, but it just goes to show you can never fully judge a show, because you can never tell what has Personal Appeal.

    I watched Where The Wild Things Are recently and loved it. But it's such a personal film, I know other people are going to hate it and be completely perplexed that anyone could like it.

  7. Good example of a scene writing itself because the characters are different enough:


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