#TypesTuesday – What do Olivia Pope, Nicholas Brody, and Birgitte Nyborg have in common?

Power of Conscience characters know instinctively if something is wrong, unjust, unfair, improper, corrupt or out of line. Their judgment and response is swift and immutable. They are propelled forward by personal outrage and moral indignation, usually on another’s behalf.

Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) on Scandal “saves people.”  She says she and her colleagues “wear the white hat.”  She is a “fixer” and her private practice is propelled forward by injustice and exonerating the wrongly accused.

U.S. Marine Sergeant, Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) in Homeland violently turns against his country, initially, because of the grave injustice of a U.S. military drone strike on an Afgan school.  He adopts Islam and becomes a terrorist to expose and expiate what he sees as a morally corrupt war.

Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) in Borgen withdraws her party’s support for Labour when opposition leader Michael Laugesen cynically reverses his position on asylum seekers in a pre-election ploy for votes.  The injustice of this propels her to denounce Laugesen’s morally repellent stand and, in a surprise twist, she is elected  Prime Minister.

Power of Conscience characters really do believe they are their brother’s keeper. They feel responsible for the greater good and for doing good. They wrestle with how far they should go in promoting what is right, seeking justice and fairness for others, in exposing corruption or  injustice, or in standing up against evil or wrong-doing. They worry about what is the higher duty and what exactly is required of them in response.  The question of what is the higher duty particularly plagues all these characters and is at the center of all their personal conflict.

In Scandal, Olivia Pope believes that  President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) is what the United States needs.  The question is how much wrong is she willing to do for a cause that is right?  She is one of Grant’s top campaign advisors and is willing to fix an election, lie about her illegal conduct, cover up his past wrong-doing in order to serve what she sees as a higher duty, getting an essentially good man elected.

In Homeland, Nicholas Brody is torn between his love for his family and the cause for which he is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, to be a suicide bomber targeting the President and his top administration.  What is the higher duty?

In Borgen, Birgitte Nyborg is continually torn between her duties as Prime Minister and her family.  While doing what is right for the country she must neglect important personal obligations and disappoint those she loves. Her need to do right by her countrymen costs her her marriage.

Other sides of this issue tear the characters apart in terms of what is the moral imperative and what is politically expedient.  All these characters struggle between what is right and what is possible (and the attendant compromises needed to get anything done). How much compromise is too much?  Law vs. justice is also an issue.  What is legal isn’t always just.  What is just isn’t always legal.  Again, it all goes back to what is the higher duty?

Without laws there is no civilization.  Without mercy and being just there is no humanity.  This is the quandary for Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) on The Walking Dead. He is a Power of Conscience character who leads a band of survivors during a Zombie Apocalypse.  Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal), his one time police partner, argues the group needs to do everything and anything necessary to survive.  No matter how unjust, no matter what moral or civil laws are broken, survival is the highest value.  Rick believes that to survive in such a way makes them all less human.  And yet, Rick is driven to do terrible things, always struggling with what is the higher duty.

Power of Conscience characters fear not living up to their own internal standards or sense of propriety, honesty, and decency.  They are afraid of being or becoming unworthy.  These characters don’t fear failure in the eyes of the world; they fear not living up to their own (often impossibly high) standards. They are some of the most conflicted characters on television.


#WritingAdviceWednesday – Advice from Script Lab on Scenes

I agree with every word of the following post by Script Lab.  Writers– take this to heart!

Scenes can come in all shapes and sizes: a one-sentence establishing, a half-page aftermath, a three-page reversal, the list goes on. And clearly there’s a lot that goes into crafting a great scene: start late; get out early; maintain conflict; keep lines of dialogue brief; keep action paragraphs short; maximize white space; avoid “I” and block pages; incorporate subtext and indirection; create audience connection through suspense, mystery, and revelation; and show the story in a visually interesting way, all while writing with a unique original voice. But that’s all execution.

Screenplays are built on “What happens next?” and, therefore, the root of every scene comes down to two fundamental objectives: (1) moving the story forward and/or (2) revealing character. The very best scenes do both.

But here’s the hard part, and something I call the 100% rule: if you’re not 100% positive that at least one of these two scene objectives is necessary, you must absolutely kill it! Even if you love it, even if it’s funny, or witty, or clever, if it doesn’t move the story forward or reveal some essential complexity of character, you simply do not need it.

Dexter Finale vs The Breaking Bad Finale

The difference between the Dexter series finale and the Breaking Bad series finale is the difference between exposition and revelation. The Dexter finale was exposition, defined by various dictionaries as “writing or speech primarily intended to convey information or to explain; a detailed statement, description or explanation.” I would throw in a justification or excuse as well (more about that in a minute). The Breaking Bad finale was all about revelation, defined by various dictionaries as “something revealed, especially a dramatic or striking disclosure of something not previously known or realized.”

Dexter’s final season was filled with rather convoluted plotting and a lot of discussion about what a sociopath can and cannot feel, what is the nature of a monster, and the role of Dexter’s “dark passenger”.

It reminds me, on a lesser scale, of the husband of a friend of mine. This smart, handsome, funny man is a narcissist. He is consumed by the desire to look a decade or two younger than he is and he endlessly trots out of tales of his former glory days as a man about town and a minor player in music business celebrity comings and goings.

Every aspect of his life is in service to his vanity. He explains this by talking about his difficult childhood and his boyhood low self-esteem and insecurities. Or he charmingly says: “I guess I am just a selfish bastard.” Or- “I know I am such a narcissist.” It’s said with a wink and a nod or a shrug and a shake of the head. It is as if admitting this passes for real self awareness or actually excuses his behavior.

Meanwhile, his kids go to a sub-standard school because he overspends on luxuries large and small and the education budget is shot. He justifies the lesser school by saying he wants his kids exposed to a real cross section of life and not just well off entitled little brats. Meanwhile, his kids will suffer for having had  inferior schooling.

His work history is intermittent and he still has dreams of “making it” on a more glamorous stage than the one on which he currently lives. He and his wife took out a $15,000 credit card based home equity loan to pay for a much needed bathroom renovation. Circumstances intervened and the renovation was delayed and the money banked. When tax time came, he sheepish admitted he had been drawing on the loan with his own credit card and the whole amount was now gone. He had frittered it away on himself and small presents here and there to make himself feel better. No new bathroom and a new $15,000 debt.

How does this relate to Dexter? At the end of the day it isn’t enough that Dexter admits he is a monster or now that he has feelings he can’t bear them. He is a serial killer. He wants to kill. He might have channeled this through training and adherence to “the code” but it’s a compulsion like drink, drugs, or pedopfilia.

Dexter’s excuse or justification is that he experienced a childhood trauma and only kills bad people– oh, except those whose deaths directly or indirectly were caused by their getting too close to his secret or those who died mistakenly or accidentally. The truth is he enjoys killing.

He loves the building desire and the pent up release that comes from stalking and murder. He loves it more than he loves his son. He wants it more than he wants the woman he loves. He is more strongly bonded to it than he is bonded to his sister. Explaining this, justifying this, naming this, or intellectualizing about this is not revelation. It is exposition. Dexter is as self-deluded in the finale as he was in the first episode. Don’t get me wrong, much about this series was brilliant. But, like my friend’s charming narcissist husband, at the end of the day the justifications, excuses, and explanations just get tiresome and tedious. The Dexter finale feels empty because it is empty.

In contrast, Walter White has a revelation in the Breaking Bad finale. He realizes he didn’t do what he did for his family but for himself, for the thrill of living on the edge, and for feeling really and truly alive when in danger. I suspect that given the choice, even knowing exactly what the end would be, Walter White would do it all again. He is the worm that turned. Pushed around, cheated, and abused by the system, he rebels. White’s moment of clarity in the finale reminds me of the line from Paradise Lost— “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.” No excuses. No justifications. It was a fitting end to a brilliant series.


It all started pleasantly enough. The sun was shining, it was warm, and I was hurrying along the tree-lined road. The concrete island in the middle of the street was not exactly where I should be crossing but… I was in a hurry and the regular crossing was further down the way.

As I rushed across intersection, my foot slipped and I took a tumble toward the pavement. My head hit the pavement so hard it shattered my sunglasses. The plastic pieces cut my forehead above and near my eyebrow. Blood ran down my face. I tried to break my fall with my left hand. My fingers were forced into an almost right angles to my hand. In other words, two fingers were now in an an “L” shape! My knee was slammed and skinned.

But momentarily, almost as my head was hitting the pavement, several people rushed to my aid. A nurse showed up out of nowhere who checked my vital signs and made sure my neck wasn’t broken. Then the ambulance drove up. I was whisked off to A&E or the emergency room.

One of the burly young ambulance EMTs had his name written in elvish on his arm. How nerdy is that– and how nerdy is the fact I recognized it as elvish. He’s the dad of small daughter and has a job that daily points out just how fragile the human body is and the staggering variety of ways in which it’s possible to injure it. So he has a guardian angel prayer on his inner bicep. Then he’s got a full guardian angel on his upper shoulder. I felt very protected.

Now the irony of all this is– next week I am going to work with the writers, directors, and producers of Casualty. The show is a long running drama on the order of ER. I’d never been in a British emergency room before and my bed was placed with a full view of everyone coming and going. It was the perfect vantage point. In came the young and old, the critical and the minor accidents, like me.

I had an X-ray to make sure my fingers weren’t broken. They weren’t, only severely dislocated. Then a doctor who specialized in anesthetic injected my fingers and joints and the bone doctor snapped them back into place. I didn’t feel a thing except a small pop. They were straight again! I had another X-ray to make the bone didn’t when the fingers were repositioned. While I was waiting I was served a selection of sandwiches and a very nice milky tea. The report came back from radiology, all was okay. My fingers were taped, I got a few stitches and I was sent on my way.

I asked the doctor who administered the anesthetic why he chose that particular specialty. He said there was great variety of cases. You are only responsible for one patient at a time. And when you are done, you are done. You leave your work at work.

That brings me to the point of this post. There are a number of ways to approach being in the medical profession —

1. It’s a job. Being a doctor is solid professional employment and a good way to make a living or support a family. The doctor does what is expected and punches out. He or she puts in the time and is concerned and responsible when on the job. But the doctor doesn’t take the job home and retires as soon as is age-appropriate and financially feasible.

2. It’s a career. Being a doctor is a good opportunity for getting ahead in life. The doctor is working to achieve advancement either in the organization (or hospital) or in the specialty. The job is a means to an end (rising through the ranks, achieving greater recognition, becoming a sought after expert etc.) It is a stepping- stone to something else and worth the hard work, discipline, and extra effort to achieve a larger goal.

3. It’s a vocation. Being a doctor is a life mission or a higher calling. The doctor is there to make a difference and impact people’s lives. The work is a consuming passion for the doctor. There is no dividing line between work and personal life. Work is the doctor’s life.

4. It’s a mistake. Being a doctor is not a good fit. The individual is in medicine for the wrong reasons, the wrong motivations, or to please someone else. Or the reality of the job doesn’t conform to the ideal of the job or the fantasy of being a doctor. In any case, the individual puts in the time and effort, got the job, and now feels trapped.

Any kind of employment, but particularly in medicine, has a variety of people who look at the “Why” of doing the job very differently. All individuals naturally assume their “Why” is the most valid reason or, if everyone else was honest, is the real motivation “Why” anyone works at the hospital. This is a great area of opportunity for personal conflict in a story. Too often in medical shows, or shows about other professions, everyone is doing the job for the same reason. That isn’t the case in life and it shouldn’t be the case in a drama.

$ $ $ $ $ $

As a side note, the whole experience cost me exactly nothing. No charge. Zip. Zero. Nada. My care was prompt, professional, and very concerned and personable. Despite paying the equivalent of a mortgage payment for health insurance in the US our deductible is $1600. The whole bill including ambulance would have cost several thousand dollars– or my deductible at the very least. When I tell this to my British friends they shake their heads and mutter softly, “Madness. Absolute madness.”

Power and The Game of Thrones

Soap Operas were the first television broadcast formats to use non-linear narratives. These programs have always featured interrupted story lines, shifting character focus and point of view in various episodes (and a large cast with whose characters regularly drop in and out of particular story lines), as well as alternating story arcs which advance separate but related story lines, or different characters that deal with different aspects of the same plot. There is frequent use of flashbacks, dream sequences, and other disjointed uses of time.

Popular and critically acclaimed Prime Time programs that are perceived as innovative and highly original use a combination of many of the same storytelling techniques. Why do shows such as The Game of Thrones feel fresh, inventive, and avant-garde to television audiences while Soap Operas often feel tired, old fashioned, and provincial? The answer can be found in two words– Great Characters.

If you look at the structure of The Game of Thrones it is about 80% eating or drinking and talking, walking and talking, having sex and talking, or riding and talking.  A few spectacular set pieces or violent action sequences do punctuate all of the talking but the show is primarily about relationships and power, relationships and love, or relationships and trust or betrayal.  This kind of relationship drama is the foundation of a soap.

The Game of Throne brings its relationships to life with complex characters that have a specific point of view and whose actions are always consistent with their particular way of looking at the world, their role in the world, and their philosophy of life, love, and power.

Let’s take a look at the main Game of Thrones characters in relationship to how they understand power and its use.

The first major character introduced in the series is Eddard “Ned” Stark. He is the lord of the Wintefell and head of the House Stark. He is a Power of Conscience character.

These characters know instinctively if something is wrong, unfair, or improper. They have a keen sense of justice and feel responsible for doing the greater good. In Ned’s own words: “The law is the law.” “You think my life is such a precious thing to me, that I would trade my honor for a few more years …of what?”  These characters look at power as their sworn duty to do right and take responsibility. Ned is tested by an offer to save his children by confessing to a treason he did not commit.  He believes his higher duty is to his family rather than his word.  He is beheaded any way and his children hunted down or dangerously trapped.

Catelyn Tully is the wife of Ned Stark and Lady of Winterfell. She is fiercely protective of her family. Catelyn always follows her heart rather than her head where family matters are concerned. She is  jealous of Ned’s bastard son, Jon Snow. She resents that her husband brought the boy into HER family.

Later in the story, Catelyn is consumed with avenging the deaths in the House of Stark. She is a formidable adversary and, like most Power of Love characters, wields an iron fist in a velvet glove. She finds her power in protecting and pushing her family forward.

Robb Stark is the eldest child of Lady Catelyn and Lord Eddard Stark. He is declared King in the North by his bannermen and family allies after his father’s execution.  He is leading forces in a rebellion to break the North from the control of the Iron Throne.

Robb is a Power of Idealism character.  He is a warrior/savant called “The Young Wolf” and instinctively knows how to strategize and win battles.  Like Jaime Lannister, another Power of Idealism character, Robb is an extraordinary warrior and believes the rules don’t apply to him.  And like Jaime, Robb is in love with someone forbidden to him.  He is a doomed romantic who secretly weds a woman who will cost him his life and his war. His power is his ability to inspire others and in his extraordinary fighting abilities.

Jon Snow is Ned Stark’s second son.  He was born of an undisclosed romantic liaison.  He, like his father, is a Power of Conscience character.  Jon feels unworthy as Ned’s bastard son and joins the Rangers to find a good and moral purpose for his life.  But, like all Power of Conscience characters, the issue soon becomes what is the higher duty or most important moral purpose?  Does he try to help and save his brother, Robb, and the Stark family?  Or does he remain true to the vows he took as a Ranger to protect only the Wall and hence the entire realm.  Jon finds power in being a good and righteous man, he often doesn’t know what such a man looks like in the dark and complicated world he faces.

Sansa Stark is the elder daughter of Catelyn and Eddard Stark. She is raised as a true high-born lady with all the traditional feminine charms and graces. Sansa is also a Power of Love character. She is a young romantic and lives for day she will marry her handsome prince and have his children.

When her Prince Joffery turns out to be a cruel little sadist she, like most Power of Love characters, believes if she loves him long enough and well enough he will have to love her back. These characters often see their own value reflected in the eyes of another.  Sansa sees her power as a dance of romance and courtly love.  But she too, over the course of the series, reveals the strength of steel inside her velvet glove.

Arya Stark is the third child and second Stark daughter. She is a rebellious, high-spirited girl who doesn’t fit in with the other young ladies of the court. She wants to excel as a swordsman and fighter.

Arya is a Power of Idealism Character. These characters want to find their special place in the word, be extraordinary, and be called to some great destiny (often as a warrior). They reject the demands of  traditional authority to maintain and protect their own individuality and personal freedom. Arya seeks the power of having the ability to be fully and truly herself.

Brandon is the fourth child and third  Stark son. He is a Power of Imagination character.

These characters can see, hear, or “feel” things others cannot. Bran has a mystical connection with his direwolf, has prophetic dreams, and has a growing access to the “old magic” as the story goes on.

He is seemingly small, insignificant, and a cripple due to a fall. But he has great inner powers yet to be revealed.  Brandon’s only access to power as a connection to the mystical, magical, and the divine.  “You can’t kill it you know, the raven is you.”

Robert Baratheon is the (late) King of Westeros. He took the Iron Throne in a war known as Robert’s Rebellion. He is a Power of Will character.

Tywin Lannister, another Power of Will character, lusts for domination and control, but King Robert lusts for wine, women, hunting, and eating.

He is a Power of Will character in the tradition of Falstaff. Robert is volatile, dangerous and is entirely ruled by his appetites.  Power to Robert is living large and lustily and answering to no one.

Cersei Lannister is the wife and later widow of King Robert. Cersei is the only daughter of Lord Tywin Lannister.  The House of Lannister is one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Westeros.

Cersei is another Power of Love character.  She exercises power through her son, Joffery.  Although she know how dark and cruel his heart is she still loves him as fiercely as a mother lion.

“Tears aren’t a woman’s only weapon.”  “Everyone who isn’t us is an enemy.”  She finds her power behind her son’s throne.

Ser Jaime Lannister is a knight of the Kingsguard, a position he has held for twenty years since he was made the youngest Kingsguard ever. He is the eldest son of Tywin Lannister and is his sister’s incestuous lover.

He a Power of Idealism character and is acknowledged as one of the best warriors in the land.  Jamie is unique and extraordinary. He makes his own rules and follows his own peculiar code of honor.  His power is in his extraordinary and unique abilities.  “There are no men like me. Only me.”

Tywin Lannister is Lord of Casterly Rock, Shield of Lannisport, and Warden of the West. He is one of the most powerful lords in Westeros and father of Jaime, Cersei, and Tyrion Lannister.

He is a Power of Will character. These characters take what they want, fight for every inch of turf, refuse to show any weakness themselves, pounce decisively on the weakness of others, and swiftly avenge any wrong (or perceived wrong). “Do you think I’d be where I am if I had lost a battle?” These characters show no mercy and expect none.  His power is in his strength and ruthlessness.

Tyrion Lannister, is the third and youngest child of powerful Lord Tywin. Tyrion is a dwarf, and is sometimes mockingly called The Imp or The Halfman. He is a Power of Truth character.

Unlike Varys who is a sly secret-keeper, Tyrion is a bold skeptic and cynical truth-teller. He often says what others are too afraid, too embarrassed, or too timid to say.

The major theme in his story going forward is betrayal or seeming betrayal by nearly everyone. Power is an illusive thing for Tyrion, it resides in loyalty and trust.  Both are so rare in Westeros as to be almost nonexistent.  He survives by his keen wit, cynical nature, and his powers of perception.

Varys is a eunuch, a secret keeper, and the Master of Whisperers (the head of the royal Spy Network). He is an advisor on the king’s small council.

Varys is a Power of Truth character. These characters believe the world is filled with hidden dangers, illusive enemies and concealed pitfalls. His philosophy might be stated: “Things are never what they seem.” “Trust no one.” “Watch out for secret agendas and hidden pitfalls.”  He believes power is “a trick, a shadow on the wall”.  Power is perception.  “It resides where people believe it resides”.

I liked what the AV Club has said about the series– “Each storyline is separated into roughly equal-sized chunks, then split between episodes. Every week, viewers drop in on one of those storylines for a few minutes, hopefully departing enticed to come back the next week by a cliffhanger (or two). Some episodes focus more heavily on certain characters, but each hour goes out of its way to drop in on as many characters as possible, just to keep the audience aware of what’s going on. As in soaps, this creates stories that don’t so much build as exist in an eternal present. The show has climaxes and traditional stories, but it seems to constantly be moving forward. There’s always something else coming, and the series has to maintain the illusion that whatever finality there is offers more of a comma than a period.”

I would add that the gaining or losing of power and how power is best used are the underlying theme that tie all the far-flung action of the show together.  This theme provides a sense of continuity to what’s going on in every part of the world and across all the battle fronts (foreign and domestic) on which the war is being fought.  Power is what binds the characters to the story and also binds the disparate action of the episodes together.

Children’s Media Conference in Sheffield UK

The Children’s Media Conference is the only gathering in the UK for everyone involved in developing, producing and distributing content to kids – on all platforms.

The CMC welcome delegates from TV, interactive media, games, licensing, toys, radio, book and magazine publishing and the arts and culture sector – with speakers from all those areas and beyond.

It’s the only time when delegates from across the whole industry get together and, in the UK, it’s the best and most cost-effective way of meeting people relevant to your business.

My Character Map session is on Wednesday July 3, 2013

Register now for the full Conference, for the popular Wednesday Workshops and for the new International Exchange – and of course don’t miss out on the Pizza Express Networking Dinner.

The list of speakers is growing daily in over 50 sessions and workshops, including a whole strand of “Focus On…” international business issues at the International Exchange.


Vintage Cop Shows – Why Is The Cop On The Job?


I recently had a question from a reader about how different Character Types do the same job OR how the same Character Types might do a job differently.  This previous post answers both questions.  I love questions from readers.  Be sure to submit yours.

Three cop shows changed forever how police work is depicted on television. Each show was original and iconic in its own time. Each remains an example of emotional storytelling at peak intensity and engagement. Let’s look at Hill Street Blues, Homicide: Life on the Street and NYPD Blue and the lessons that can be drawn going forward.

Hill Street Blues redefined the cop/crime genre through intertwined partnerships that combined police officers’ stressful work lives with the conflicts in their private lives. Very few investigations or interrogations were ever featured on the show. Instead, each episode charted a “day in the life” of the precinct from the early-morning roll call to a late-night rehash of the day’s events. This recap was usually in the bedroom with lovers Captain Furillo and Public Defender Joyce Davenport. Hill Street Blues focused almost exclusively on the interpersonal relationships between the core cast members. The show also introduced a more “documentary” look and feel to the genre. Real-life personal issues and situations were explored in a raw and more explicit manner than previously depicted on earlier shows such as Columbo or Kojak. Real-life street slang was used throughout the program.

Homicide: Life on the Street exploded television racial stereotypes with multi-dimensional complex depictions of African Americans. The show was set in Baltimore, a predominately black American city. The storylines managed to cross racial barriers that were previously taboo on television. Homicide also broke many of television’s editing and narrative continuity rules. Jump cuts were numerous and unpredictable shifts in the narrative marked it as one of the most unconventional programs at that point in the genre. With a sharp unflinching honesty about race, prejudice and violence, the detective’s job is depicted as repetitive and emotionally draining. The show examined the enormous toll that policing took on individuals and on partnerships.

NYPD Blue was set against the backdrop of urban decay in New York City. Career cops were depicted as complicated, complex and often deeply flawed human beings. Although the show featured risky adult material, most of the stories were about families and the terrible emotional aftermath of violence. Less attention was paid to the crimes than how the crimes affected the relationships in the core cast. NYPD Blue was really about one man’s journey toward redemption. Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) began the show as a drunken abusive racist cop who is about to be thrown off the force (for good reason). Seventeen years later, he’s earned the top position in the precinct and, although still Andy, is fit to lead.

Each of these classic cop shows focused on the “Why” of the human cop story rather than the “How” of the crime story. That’s what made them successful. And that’s what separates these shows from the current generation of procedural cop shows like Law & Order (and all its varieties). But even in the Dick Wolf Law & Order universe, “Why” each person does the job is based on the individual’s very clear Character Type. For example: Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston), over many years on the show, still wrestles with the same questions of ethical principle vs. political expediency and law vs. justice. His “Why” is clearly driven by the Power of Conscience.

In a one-hour drama it is only possible to do one thing well– procedure or personal relationships. There isn’t time to do both well. There currently is lots of procedure on television. Perhaps it’s time for the pendulum to swing back to emotional personal relationships in cop shows.

Clear true emotions travel. They connect with the audience and move them week after week to watch a show. The definition of “to be entertained” is to feel something. In the classic cop shows discussed above, the mechanics of “How” a crime is solved is so much less important than “Why” the cops are doing what they are doing and “Why” they are affected by the job. If there is no “Why” it’s just cops going through the motions, which can make a story feel by-the-numbers and hollow.

The “Why” provides the passion and inter-personal conflict between the individuals in the story (and all the internal conflict within the character). Too often writers simply project their general idea of being a cop and the mechanics of “How” to put the cops through their paces— Instead of being specific about “Why” one particular individual is a cop.

There are four basic categories of “Why” anyone becomes a cop (or anything else for that matter):

1. It’s a job. Being a cop is solid union employment and a way to make a living or support a family. The cop does what is expected and punches out. The cop puts in the time and is concerned and responsible on the job. But he or she doesn’t take the job home and retires as soon as is feasible.

2. It’s a career. Being a cop is a good opportunity for advancement. The cop is working to achieve something else. The job is a means to an end (rising through the ranks, running for political office, becoming a consultant etc.) It is a stepping- stone to something else and worth the hard work and extra effort to achieve a larger goal.

3. It’s a vocation. Being a cop is a life mission or a higher calling. The cop is there to make a difference, have an important impact or change people’s lives. The work is a consuming passion for the cop. There is no dividing line between work and personal life. Work is the cop’s life.

4. It’s a mistake. Being a cop is not a good fit. The individual is a cop for the wrong reasons or the wrong motivations. Or the reality of the job doesn’t conform to the idea of the job or the fantasy of being a cop. In any case, the individual puts in the time and effort, got the job and now is trapped.

Any kind of employment, but particularly policing, has a variety of people who look at the “Why” of doing the job very differently. All individuals naturally assume their “Why” is the most valid reason or, if everyone else was honest, is the real motivation “Why” anyone works at the Station House or Precinct. This is a great opportunity for personal conflict in a story. Too often in cop shows (or shows featuring any profession) everyone is doing the job for the same reason. That isn’t the case in life and it shouldn’t be the case in your drama.

Layered onto “Why” someone is employed as a police officer (it’s a job, a career, a vocation or a mistake) is the “Why” of the individual’s Character Type. Looking down on nine different police officers toiling away long into the night it might be easy or convenient to believe they are all working hard for the same internal motivation or with the same value system and world view in mind. Every one of the Nine Character Types sees the world very differently, believes very different things about how the world works, and sees the primary role of a cop from a unique perspective.

1. Power of Conscience cops believe policing is a duty and a responsibility to make the world a better place. Doing the right thing is crucial to these kinds of cops. Their struggle is what is the higher duty or the most right—law or justice. (These two principles are not the same thing). Hill Street Blues‘ Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel) is this kind of character. Howard Hunter (James B. Sikking) is the comic version on the same show. Homicide’s Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) is also a Power of Conscience character. Rylan Givens (Timothy Oliphant) is a more recent example.

2. Power of Will cops believe policing is a matter of strength and the ability to dominate the situation. The use of power is crucial to these kinds of cops. Their struggle is what actually constitutes strength or power— excess or restraint. (Does compassion and tolerance make you stronger or weaker?) NYPD Blue’s Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) is this kind of character. A more recent example is Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) on The Shield.

3. Power of Ambition cops believe policing is a matter of winning or losing. Appealing to other’s self-interest is the way to get things done. Their struggle is with short cuts vs. the long hard patient slog—results or process. (If no one else plays by the rules why should they?) Hill Street Blues‘ John “JD” LaRue (Kiel Martin) is a Power of Ambition character. A more recent example is Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) on The Wire.

4. Power of Love cops believe policing is caring for others and helping them succeed. Compassion and understanding is crucial to how they get the job done. Their struggle is when to employ “tough love” or just give up on someone. (When does empathy or understanding simply enable bad or destructive behavior?) NYPD Blue’s Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) is this kind of character. Another example is Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) on Hill Street Blues.

5. Power of Idealism cops believe policing is a matter of individual style and personal excellence. Use of unique talents and refusing to buckle under to stupid bureaucrats is crucial to their method of policing. Their struggle is how to maintain their individuality and still be part of a larger organization. (When does being a maverick or a rebel cause more harm than good?) Homicide’s Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) illustrates the Power of Idealism character as a cop.  A more example is Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) on The Wire.

6. Power of Reason cops believe policing is a matter of keeping personal self-control and maintaining the social order. Objectivity, expertise and a depth of knowledge are crucial to getting the job done. Their struggle is to connect with their own emotions. (When is objectivity actually alienation?) Dexter’s title character (Michael C. Hall) is one of the best recent examples of this kind of character on the police force. Monk’s title character (Tony Shalhoub) is the comedic example.

7. Power of Truth cops believe policing is a matter of uncovering secret agendas and avoiding hidden pitfalls. Establishing trust, knowing who your friends are and being attuned to conspiracies are crucial to getting the job done. Their struggle is to accept the ambiguity of the job and the possibility of never finding real certainty. (Is the “truth” a moving target or something fixed and certain?) Homicide’s conspiracy obsessed Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito) is this kind of character. Hill Street Blues’ loyal to the core Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) is another example.  Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) on the UK version of Wallendar is a more recent example.

8. Power of Imagination cops believe policing is a matter of listening to your instincts, following hunches and special intuitive clues. Often access to what others cannot see or hear or a quirky special kind of insight is crucial to doing their job. Their struggle is how to interpret their unusual intuition or how best to communicate it to others. (Do they take me seriously or do they think I’m crazy?) This kind of cop is rare on television. Hill Street Blues’ Michael (Mick) Belker (Bruce Weitz) is an uncouth ruffian version of the Power of Imagination character.  A more recent example is police consultant Allison DuBois (Patricia Arquette) in Medium.

9. Power of Excitement cops believe policing is an adventure and a thrill ride. Their charm, good-humor and ability to get themselves in and out of traps is crucial to how they do their job. Their struggle is in following orthodox rules when it is so much more interesting to play fast and loose, improvise and shoot from the hip. (Are we having fun yet?) Beverly Hills Cop’s Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) is the quintessential example of this character.

The “Why” of policing combined with Character Type creates a variety of complex and interesting individuals. It would be possible, for example, to create four very different Power of Conscience characters depending on whether they view policing as a job, as a career, as a vocation or as a mistake. Their values and their world views would not change but their attitudes would clash. For example: How these characters define their “higher duty” or what is the “most right” is hugely influenced by the reason they are on the job. Those different perspectives provide enormous potential conflict. Here is the breakdown:

1. A Power of Conscience cop who sees policing as a job would probably believe the higher duty is owed to family. This cop would follow the rules, be conscientious and not take the job home.

2. A Power of Conscience cop who sees policing as a career would probably believe the higher duty is owed to the organization or society. The higher the cop rises, the more effective the position becomes to do good and improve the larger situation. This cop would be relentless in seeking opportunities to advance a larger moral agenda.

3. A Power of Conscience cop who sees policing as a vocation probably believes the higher duty is owed to the victims of crime. This cop’s passion would be justice for the victims and punishment for the criminals. His or her personal life would be consumed by this life mission.

4. A Power of Conscience cop who see policing as a mistake would probably believe the higher duty is owed to one’s self. Policing can be a murky business where there often is no right answer and true justice is hard to find. This lack of clear-cut black and white or right and wrong would probably be an unbearable burden on this individual– giving rise to external moral outrage and internal guilt or self-loathing. How can I be good or worthy in a cesspool?

Creating an ensemble which clearly addresses “Why” the cop is on the job combined with Character Type provides an endless source of internal and external conflict. Making use of the full variety of human experience in specific combination creates memorable partnerships, unforgettable enemies and extraordinary individual characters.

The Power of Truth Book – New for 2012 – Excerpt

My upcoming trade paperback, The Power of Truth: Creating Characters Who are Detectives, Secret Keepers, Skeptics, and More is in final galley form.  The book discusses at length what a Power of Truth Story is and what the emotional parameters of Power of Truth character are.

In brief:

Power of Truth characters believe the world is filled with hidden dangers, secretive enemies and concealed pitfalls. This character’s philosophy might be stated: “Everyone is hiding something.” “Trust no one.” “Question everything.” The story keeps these characters off balance, doubting those around them, and uncertain about their own perceptions.

A character driven by the Power of Truth is often the protagonist in mystery stories, mistaken or hijacked identity stories, investigative stories and detective stories. In an ensemble cast, these characters are frequently secret keepers, strategists, counselors or advisers. In whatever role they play, they look beneath the surface of things to discover what lies below or is somehow hidden from view. They believe that nothing is ever what it seems.

Many other different kinds of films and novels deal with investigation, crime, conspiracy, and deception. Not all of them are Power of Truth stories. The key is to determine what the mystery, the chase, the crime, or the investigation reveals about the main character:  What is actually at the root of the illegal act, the murder, the conspiracy, the unusual phenomena, or the disturbing occurrence?

What does the solution — and how that solution is obtained — reveal about the protagonist’s view of the world, about his or her presumed place in the world or self-identified role, or about the character’s philosophy of life and love?

How is the protagonist’s essential human struggle portrayed over the course of the story? What does the story tells us about what that character values most highly?

The answers to these questions determine what kind of story it is and what kind of protagonist pursues this line of inquiry.  Understanding and using story specifics and clearly delineating your character creates the kind of compelling story that  are emotionally authentic and which “feel real” to audiences.


Erin Brockovich, To Kill a Mockingbird, Silkwood and The Insider all involve some kind of criminal conspiracy. In these stories a crime is committed or evidence is falsified or covered-up. The protagonist wants to expose these crimes and stop the wrongdoers. There is duplicity and deceit in each of these stories.  But these stories are not Power of Truth stories. They explore the Power of Conscience.

Power of Conscience characters instinctively know when something is wrong, unjust, unfair, improper, corrupt, or morally out of line. Their judgment and response is swift and immutable. They are propelled forward by personal outrage and moral indignation, usually on another’s behalf.

The worst thing that could happen to a Power of Conscience character is to become morally bankrupt or become a failure in his or her own eyes (i.e. not living up to his or her own high standards).

In Erin Brockovich, To Kill a Mockingbird, Silkwood and The Insider the protagonist is clear about what happened (or is happening), what is morally right or wrong, and who is to blame. The story struggle, then, is primarily about what to do to right the wrong.

All of these stories revolve around the question: “If I am my brother’s keeper how far must I go on his behalf?”

The Power of Conscience character’s answer to the above question is usually: “All the way.”

Once the character has decided to right the wrong, the question becomes how to prevail. This character’s pursuit of justice costs him or her dearly. This character often damages, gives up, or loses his or her job, family, or other important relationships.  He or she often suffers staggering personal or financial losses during the story journey.

Power of Conscience stories are primarily about law vs. justice; answering the call to one’s higher duty; standing up for one’s moral code; and, taking responsibility for or sacrificing for another’s welfare.  These are very different issues from those at the core of Power of Truth stories.


The Devil’s Advocate, Wall Street, Catch Me If You Can and The Talented Mr. Ripley all involve crimes and cover-ups to a greater or lesser degree. An element of active deception is involved in all four stories. But, again, these stories are not Power of Truth stories. In the ETB method they are defined as novels or films that are driven by the Power of Ambition.

A character driven by the Power of Ambition can be a hardworking, eager, charming optimist with a “can-do” spirit– or a lying, manipulative, deceitful backstabbing striver who will do anything to get ahead in life.

These kinds of protagonists can be aspirational characters who want to rise from a lowly station to a more exalted one. Or they can be whores (real or metaphoric), frauds, fakers, or con artists, always on the hustle and one step ahead of the law. In any case, maintaining their status, popularity, illusion of success, or perceived social importance is key.

The worst thing that could happen to a Power of Ambition character is failing in the eyes of others or failing in the eyes of the world.

In The Devil’s Advocate, Wall Street, Catch Me If You Can and The Talented Mr. Ripley, the protagonist knows that what he or others are doing is wrong or illegal. Each protagonist proceeds anyway, in order to achieve or maintain the image of wealth, prestige, status, or position he so desperately craves.

All of these stories are primarily about how much a protagonist is willing to compromise morally, professionally, or personally for material or social gain.

As Power of Ambition characters abandon their moral scruples one by one to obtain their goal, they are willing to lie, cheat, steal, or even commit murder to get ahead. They are acutely aware of others’ opinions and are willing to use any kind of fraud, trick, or deception to maintain the illusion of their social standing or external success.

In the end, when these characters have nearly lost everything that matters on a human scale, they often reform their ways and “do the right thing.”  If the story is a tragedy, they continue in their illegal or illicit ways until they and everything that matters to them is hollowed out, corrupted, or destroyed.


The Godfather Trilogy, Scarface, The Last Seduction and The Sopranos all involve criminal activity, the suppression of evidence, and the murder of anyone who interferes. But not one of these are Power of Truth stories.  In the ETB method, these are stories are propelled by the Power of Will.

Power of Will characters are strong, lusty, larger-than-life protagonists and ferocious, indomitable adversaries. They are absolutely ruthless, stop at nothing, and are willing to use extreme violence to achieve their objectives.

These characters are relentless and unyielding. They want it all. They mean to get it all and they know just how to do it.  These are big characters who fill the screen with energy, determination, and the lust for life, sex, money, or power.

The worst thing that could happen to a Power of Will character is to be dominated, controlled, or emasculated by others.

The protagonists in The Godfather Trilogy, Scarface, The Last Seduction and The Sopranos do whatever wrong they must do to survive, to expand territory, or to conquer or dominate others. There is little struggle with morality. Everything comes down to the law of the jungle– kill or be killed. There is no ambiguity or uncertainty. Life is a battlefield. Might makes right. Winner takes all.

Never showing any sign of weakness or vulnerability is the key to every decision this character makes and every action a Power of Will protagonist takes.

These characters insist: “I had no choice. I had to protect myself, my empire, or my family.”

They sacrifice tenderness, kindness, any sense of mercy, or forgiveness to dominate the situation, This leads inevitably to the loss of their humanity, their soul, and often their lives.

Those who live by sword tend to die by the sword. The only salvation for these characters is to connect with innocence. They must become true protectors of the weak and vulnerable rather than preying on those who are an easy target.


The Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Professional, and In the Bedroom all involve criminal activity, murder, and cover-ups. But none of these stories are Power of Truth stories either. In the ETB method these stories revolve around the Power of Reason.

A character driven by the Power of Reason is most often the expert, a technician, scientist, or professional observer in a story. These characters are calm, cool, and efficient problem-solvers who who often experience difficulty with personal and social interactions.

The worst thing that could happen to a Power of Reason character is to be overwhelmed by emotion, lose his or her objectivity, or to discover that the world is not a rational place.

Power of Reason stories are driven by logical deduction. These characters believe that there is a reasonable explanation for everything and emotion is the enemy of objectivity and rationality. They believe in science and hard facts.  They don’t suffer fools and often experience some kind of profound alienation from society.

Dr. Gregory House, the medical detective and master diagnostician in the television series House, is another great example of this kind of character and story.

Dr. House investigates each medical mystery with keen powers of observation, a razor sharp intellect, and penetrating logical deductions. He is alienated from everyone and manages to alienate those around him. A patient is more of a puzzle to be solved than a human being to be nurtured and healed.

In Power of Reason stories, ambiguity and deception might be hiding the solution to the problem or the crime, but the protagonist is absolutely clear-headed, often to the point of near inhuman dispassion.

There is little personal or emotional investment in Power of Reason investigations. The problem or mystery is merely a difficult riddle to be unraveled.

Salvation for these characters lies in embracing spontaneity and admitting the strength of emotion, the power of the spirit and the spiritual, and the other intangible mysterious forces in life.


The early James Bond movies, the Indiana Jones movies, Cool Hand Luke, and Iron Man, all involve criminal activity, conspiracies by those intent on world domination or personal oppression, or evil destructive plots of one sort or another.

But not one of these are Power of Truth stories. In the ETB method these are Power of Excitement stories. Explosions, fast paced adrenaline rushes and last-minute escapes are hallmarks of these kinds of stories.

Power of Excitement stories are all about narrow escapes, the thrill of the chase, the next dangerous diversion, or another daring escapade. Whether risking twenty days in “the hole” or facing almost certain death by way of snakes, sharks, or an evil international cartel, main characters in Power of Excitement stories always remain witty, charming, and boyishly up-beat.

The worst thing that could happen to a Power of Excitement character is to be trapped, boxed in, cornered, limited, contained, or domesticated.

These characters are determined to remain free spirits, agents provocateur, and untamed “wild things.”

Power of Excitement characters are usually agents of chaos in rebellion against established authority. Their rakish push-the-envelop devil-may-care attitude shakes things up in a story. Their charm, ready wit, and natural talent as an escape artist or improvisor is what usually saves the day.

Deception, betrayal, and treachery are taken in stride with a smile or a smirk, an ironic comment, a snappy retort, or a careless shrug. These characters don’t seem to take anything or anyone too seriously.

In turn, they believe their charm, good humor, and amusing personality should entitle them to an infinite supply of forgiveness, unlimited “do-overs”, and countless “second chances.”

Power of Excitement stories are all about maintaining an almost adolescent refusal to be serious, grow up, or conform in any way to authority. These characters live for the thrill of getting in and out of trouble and tend not to learn very much along the way.


Lethal Weapon, Tango and Cash, Rush Hour, and 48 Hours all involve criminal activity, murder, drugs, and cover-ups. But they aren’t Power of Truth stories either. These tales revolve around the Power of Love .

Male-driven Power of Love stories are buddy movies. The crime, the caper, or the conspiracy is secondary to the relationship between the two partners.

In each of these stories, the partners are different as night and day. They don’t like each other but are forced to work together because of some bureaucratic mix up, a boss’ order, or some other unavoidable situation.

Over the course of the story, the partners exchange “gifts”.

Each partner brings a different talent, a different perspective, a different background, or a different attitude which proves crucial to the partnership. These differences are key to the successful outcome of the case or the resolution of the puzzle.

Neither partner can achieve the objective, solve the mystery, or apprehend the criminal, without the other’s gifts or skills.

Over the course of the story, the two partners initially develop a grudging respect. This hard-earned friendship eventually turns into the kind of loyalty which makes each character willing to take a bullet for the other.

Any two kinds of characters can come together in a Power of Love story. The purpose of the crime or case (which typically is very forgettable) brings two distinct partners together in an unforgettable relationship.


I recently watched the film adapted from the play Equus. A young man inexplicably blinds six horses at the stable where he worked as an otherwise caring stable hand. He is committed to a mental institution and an experienced psychiatrist tries to solve the mystery and heal the boy.

The story involves duplicity, self-deception, and a horrific crime. But this isn’t a Power of Truth story, either.  Equus is a Power of Idealism story in the ETB method.

A character driven by the Power of Idealism wants to stand out from the crowd, to be extraordinary, unique and special. These characters believe that life and love should involve a grand passion. They see the world in terms of sweeping epic poetry or as a struggle of operatic proportions.

Intensity of feeling– either good or bad– makes this character’s life worth living. Power of Idealism characters believe it is better to be in pain than to feel nothing at all. Being content and complacent feels like a slow death sentence to these characters.

The worst thing that could happen to Power of Idealism character is to be boring or bored, unexceptional, under-rated, mediocre, or completely ordinary.

Dr. Martin Dysart (Richard Burton), the psychiatrist in Equus, is a disillusioned Power of Idealism character. He wonders if healing the boy of his passion and madness, only to send him into a world of monotony and dull routine, is a noble thing to do.

This film is about the price of passion and whether pain is the price of being truly alive even if for only a horrifying or intensely mad moment.

Dr. Dysart says: “Passion, you see, can only be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created”.


The key to an emotionally satisfying story is to determine what the mystery, the chase, or the investigation reveals about the character.

What is at the root of the crime, the murder, the conspiracy, the unusual phenomena, or strange occurrence?

What does the solution, and how it is obtained, say about the protagonist’s view of the world, his or her philosophy, and essential human struggle?

The plot, the investigation, or the inquiry is the way a character reveals him or her self. Character is action. The actions a character takes over the course of the story tells the audience what the character truly values and what the hear of the story is.

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Tony Soprano is a Mafia Power of Will character. He believes that expanding his power base, extending his territory, protecting and defending what is rightfully his (according to Tony) and swiftly avenging any wrong (or perceived wrong) is how one gets along, gets ahead and stays ahead in the world. Life is a battleground.

How to Evaluate Stories

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