What Writers Can Learn From Literary Television

Warning: This post contains spoilers about the most recent season of “Mad Men.” If you have not yet seen “Mad Men,” you have two options: 1) Rent all four seasons, watch them, and come back to this post. 2) Read this post, erase the salient facts from your memory, and then go watch “Mad Men.” Not watching “Mad Men” is not an option, and no, I do not secretly work for AMC.

There have been several articles lately on “literary television,” programs that occupy the same space within television as literary fiction does among books. AMC has been particularly adept at producing some high-quality literary television shows, foremost among them “Mad Men,” which might be one of my favorite programs of all time. As I’ve been re-watching Season 1, in light of all that I now know after having seen Season 4, I’ve realized what it is that makes “Mad Men” so literary: it’s character-driven.

This may sound like a banal conclusion, but I found it revelatory for a fairly simple reason. I believe that “Mad Men” does character-driven storytelling better than some contemporary literary fiction, and when it comes to examining a well-written, character-driven story, I’m more likely to turn to this TV show rather than a novel.

That’s not to say there aren’t wonderful character-driven novels out there, because there are, and I’ve read and loved them. But here’s the thing: most of the writing-craft manuals I’ve read address character-driven fiction and plot-driven fiction as almost mutually exclusive entities, and contemporary writers — or perhaps contemporary publishers — seem to have taken that fallacy to heart. Stories and genres that are driven by plot don’t, on the whole, take too much time to develop their characters, whereas character-driven stories sometimes seem to sacrifice plot for development: the characters are rich and wonderful, but not much happens. And when contemporary writers try to mush the two together — plot and character — the results aren’t always pretty (Chris Adrian’s The Great Night, which I read last week and will review shortly, springs to mind).

Some viewers have accused “Mad Men” of being slow, which is understandable — but you can’t say that nothing momentous happens. Right from the beginning, there are affairs and infidelities, an unexpected and hidden pregnancy, and a rape. One character suffers a heart attack. As the show progresses into successive seasons, people are hired and fired, allegiances change, marriages and divorces occur, and some people die. And for those who find themselves missing the occasional gunfight or explosion, there’s an episode in which a guy gets his foot chopped off because a secretary gets drunk at an office party and drives a lawn mower through the building.

Writing all those occurrences down, one after the other like that, makes “Mad Men” sound a little like a soap opera. Maybe it is. But all that drama and melodrama happens because of the way the characters are; it grows organically as a direct result of character development.

Take the lead character of Don Draper. He’s ambitious, always pursuing something or someone, whether it’s an account, an idea, or a woman. He’s also a child of the Depression, raised in an unloving family, who escapes that life the first chance he gets. However, his method of escape — living a double life with a stolen identity — leaves him little room for innocence, and no room for him to be himself within the confines of the world he’s built. For most of the show thus far, Don has had someone who knows who he really is, doesn’t blame him for it, and with whom he can be himself, and so, unlike many of his contemporaries, he doesn’t chase after innocence: he doesn’t pursue his secretaries; he tends to turn away the earnest young women his colleagues desire; and when he does go after a woman (or women), the woman in question tends to have a little more life experience behind her.

Yet when Don loses that person with whom he can be himself, he loses his voice of reason and his link to innocence. He’s still ambitious, he still has the hunger for pursuit, but now he has to search elsewhere for what he’s lost. And that reaction, that search, is driven by the needs, wants, and flaws of his character.

The same is true of all the characters on the show: plot elements occur because of character elements. Don tends to stay out of trouble (plot element) because he is discreet (character element) and assertive (character element). Peggy moves from secretary to copywriter (plot element) because she sees herself as unique (character element) and wants to defy the gender-based roles of a patriarchal society (character element). Roger Sterling marries his secretary (plot element) because he wants to live life as if he’ll always be young (character element). Bert Cooper makes most of the important company decisions (plot elements) because he’s seen a level-headed guy who practices Zen (character element).

I could go on like this for every character on the show, but I think the point is clear. Whereas a plot-driven narrative might force twists and turns on its characters, the things that happen on “Mad Men” happen as a result of who the characters are, or who they think they should be, and while there are still plenty of twists and turns, they don’t seem forced.

What are some novels (or TV shows, or movies) that you believe successfully blend plot and character?

About Rachael

Rachael Warecki is an alumna of Scripps College, Loyola Marymount University, and the Teach for America '08 corps. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in The Masters Review, The Los Angeles Review, and Midwestern Gothic, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles.