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The sign of a great storyteller

March 15, 2013

If President Bartlett had been a real guy, I’d probably disagree with his politics way more than I agree with them. Aaron Sorkin is a real guy and I definitely disagree with his politics more than I agree with them. But this post isn’t about politics. It’s about storytelling and character development.

The way my daughter’s life is unfolding, the Aaron Sorkin television series The West Wing is a natural for her. She got my wife hooked and I watch it periodically. One of the episodes was shot documentary style, a day in the life of White House Press Secretary CJ Cregg, played by Allison Janney. Shooting a television program as a documentary isn’t new. M*A*S*H did it more than 30 years ago. But the version broadcast by The West Wing was superior in almost every way.

For one thing, I care more about the characters and believe in the lives built for them. If you didn’t watch The West Wing, the characters were good guys. But they were fallible and imperfect and their shortcomings were displayed on equal footing with their strong points. As a press secretary for the most powerful man in the world, CJ Cregg should be at the top of her game all the time. But there were very visible times when she wasn’t. In one instance, when the President was ensnared in a scandal about his MS, and had also deployed troops to Haiti. When asked about the confluence of events, she said, “the president’s relieved to be focusing on something that matters.” As soon as she left the briefing area, she was visibly angry at herself for the gaff that implied the President’s hiding MS was unimportant, and that he was relieved to send troops into harm’s way.

In a later episode, her father is shown to have Alzheimer’s disease. At one point, while they’re fishing together, he forgets who she is and starts yelling at her. Her emotional reaction at the scene is repeated in the documentary episode when her father calls during a crisis, telling her he doesn’t like the facility he’s living in and begging her to come immediately. She can’t, mostly because she’s chosen a life where she can’t, albeit with her father’s blessing.

The point of this whole character description is to say I like and care about this character–and most of the rest of the characters on the show–in spite of political differences, and in spite of the fact that their creator might perceive me as an example of much of what’s wrong with the country.

In other words, Aaron Sorkin, the writers, and the actors have done their job very well. Would that you and I find that level of skill in exercising our craft.

  1. March 16, 2013 11:40 am

    Yes, yes, yes. Dislike your dislike of my politics, but agree so strongly with you on this point. Writing should be about people because they are the source, the origin, the perpetrators. Film, art of any kind, fiction and non-fiction without at least the implication, if not the study of character or human mentality is cotton candy. Okay. Don’t get your nighties in a knot. I like cotton candy, too, but it can’t sustain me. I need to chew something (intellectually). And more to the point of your essay, Chris, when I write, I want to write about life, and character as it is; I want you show you a person behaving in such a way that you find admirable or disgusting, and then, over the course of the book or whatever, show you why—so that, in the end, you completely reverse your opinion. This is a lesson life has taught me, and it’s a HARD lesson to learn. It is always learned too late. Always. Always. So all I can do now is write about it. Being a writer can be both a blessing and a curse. You all know precisely what I mean.

  2. Chris Hamilton permalink
    March 16, 2013 6:43 pm

    Aaron Sorkin is a really talented guy, but I think Norman Lear trumps him. Norman Lear, the person, would probably have no use for Archie Bunker, the guy. But over the course of All in the Family, Archie because a three-dimensional character. He allowed his son-in-law, a guy he disagreed with on everything, to live with him rent-free for years. His father taught him right from wrong by hitting him so hard he broke his hand.

    And yet, for all his bluster and blow-hardedness, he clearly loved his daughter, his wife, and even his son-in-law, and never raised a hand against them–in spite of what he was taught.

    That’s the work of a master.

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