Questionable: Character Chemistry with the Reader

This is another one from Draft Vault, and it included this note: “Somehow I hit “Publish” while this was still in draft form. Therefore, whatever went out in the RSS feed was a rough draft. Sorry about that.” I’m pretty sure I cut almost all of the previous draft, so this shouldn’t be a re-run at all.

Cate M asked:

“Could you do a post on a character chemistry? Not necessarily romantic chemistry, although that would be helpful too. Basically, once you’ve got your checklist of goals, motivation, conflict, how do you make sure the characters are actually fun to spend time with, and better together than they are apart?”

So when you say “fun to spend time with,” you’re talking about the reader, right? You want each character to be fun for the reader to spend time with and then the relationship to be more fun for the reader to watch?

In my opinion (not to be taken as a rule or fact or anything like that):
• Readers want to spend time with characters who are fascinating, which means different from the norm but not so weird or awful that they’re off-putting. (“I don’t like this guy, but I can’t take my eyes off him.”)
• They want characters who are active because action is interesting and because action characterizes. (“Now that I see the things he’s doing in this story, he’s even more interesting.”)
• They want characters who are under pressure because pressure peels off layers of protection and makes them vulnerable. (“Boy, move him outside his comfort zone, and he’s a whole new character.”)
• They want characters who are struggling with other characters because while they want to see the human heart in conflict, they also want to see two human hearts in conflict with each other, desperately vying for the things that define them and make life worth living. (“She really moves him outside his comfort zone; he’s even more interesting with her.”)
• They want those struggles to suggest outcomes that are interesting so that their expectations for the rest of the story are as fascinating as the characters, especially when they’re together. (“I can’t wait to see what happens when these two get together again.”)

So fascinating, active, vulnerable characters in conflicted relationships that set up fascinating expectations.

Yeah, not easy.

As an example, I just watched a TV pilot that failed on almost all of these things.


The protagonist of Lucifer is Lucifer Morningstar and he’s the Devil. That’s a gimmick with the potential to either be really interesting (Paradise Lost, American Gothic, Good Omens, anything with Ray Wise) or really awful, and the beginning of this is really awful. The Devil has gotten bored in Hell (why? It must be full of interesting people) and he’s come to LA (of course, cliche, and why? It must be just like Hell) where he runs a nightclub (of course, cliche, dear god, this is not a good start, nothing fascinating here yet). He’s tall, dark, and handsome (cliche, cliche, and cliche). Oh, and he’s smarmy. Pick-up artist smarmy. Stupid dialogue smarmy. Kinda want to slap him and not in a good way smarmy. His action intro is breaking the speed limit on a busy street and then working his whammy on the honest traffic cop who pulls him over. I’d rather watch a show about the traffic cop; he at least seemed to have layers.

So I am not finding this guy fascinating even though he’s Satan because he’s just like every other rich, handsome jackass in LA. Then he walks into the club he owns (also a cliche, this one visual) and talks to Hell’s Handmaiden who warns him that Dad and Others are not happy and he should go back to Hell and get back to work. Lucifer smiles the smarm again and . . .

Oh, god I’m bored. Eight minutes into a 44 minute episode, and I don’t care about this guy or this story (probably because it hasn’t started yet).

Then his brother shows up and threatens him because he’s not in Hell, and his brother is infinitely more interesting because he’s upset. (Plus he’s played by D. B. Woodside and he has wings.) Lucifer continues unfazed, invulnerable, and not fascinating. Also, story still not started yet. Quarter of the way through the first episode, it’s all tedious set-up about a snotty frat guy from Hell. Why am I still watching? I have a bottle of water and Maltesers and a puppy on my lap. Might as well stick for the last half hour.

Then he’s out in front of his club wrapped in an embrace with a Famous Pop Star, and she’s gunned down (he’s immortal, being Satan and all), and the shooter’s car crashes (not because of Lucifer, which is a missed opportunity), and he runs to the car and drags the driver back from death, enraged. Lucifer’s immortal and a jerk so being upset is out of character for him, different, not a cliche, and maybe a little bit vulnerable. This starts to be a little bit interesting,

Then the tough lady cop interviews him about the shooting and he’s Smarm Boy again and she hates him. (Cliche, and cliche, and cliche.) They banter badly. So badly it hurts me, professionally. The rest of the episode is a standard (bad) buddy cop plot: The Devil and the Lady Cop bicker while interrogating a series of suspects, there’s a shoot-out, and they form an uneasy partnership at the end. They Fight Crime! (Kill Me Now!)

So why am I boring you with this recap? Because I will watch one more episode in the admittedly small hope that the writing improves because of two things, one to do with character and one to do with relationships (Hi, Cate, I remember your question.)

The character aspect is of course, Lucifer, and goes back to that moment of outrage with the shooter in the car. I didn’t get this until I watched the pilot a second time for this essay (the things I do for you Argh People), but it’s really very carefully if not cleverly set up.

The first scene is Lucifer, the dickhead, working his voodoo on the good traffic cop, at one point saying something like, “You and I are a lot alike, we both like to punish people.” Then later, after the first shooting when the police are going to stop the investigation with the hired killer instead of going after the guy behind him, he says angrily that they should be out “punishing” the real killer. And then after that, the cop has to stop by her kid’s school because her daughter was in a fight defending herself again a bully, and Lucifer leans over the ten-year-old tormentor and says there’s a special section of hell reserved for bullies, after which his eyes glow red and the little girl screams, punished. And right there is his Achilles heel: He is driven to punish people, born to punish people, assigned to punish people by God his Father. He found punishing boring and left Hell for Earth, and yet he can’t escape it. He has to punish those who transgress. He’s stuck. And now he’s vulnerable.

In case it’s been too subtle, the story nails it at the climax when he’s facing down the armed killer and says, “You killed her and I’m going to punish you.” (On the nose, much?) The killer fires at him, the cop fires back and puts the killer down, and Lucifer is furious with her: “Why did you do that? You just let him off too easy! He needs to pay, he needs to suffer, he needs to feel the pain, not escape it!” But good news, the killer isn’t dead, he shoots the cop and then puts several bullets into Lucifer before Lucifer pins him against a mirror and does something offscreen that makes him scream. Later on, recovering in the hospital, the cop says, “What happened to Jimmy?” and a much calmer Lucifer says, “Jimmy got what he deserved.”

So Lucifer is tall, dark, handsome, rich, immortal and he’s got the job from Hell that he can’t escape, forced to act every time there’s an injustice because punishment is his reason for being. That’s interesting, but I’m not sure that would bring me back for another episode in itself (really bad writing can kneecap anything).

But there’s something else.

As part of the investigation, Lucifer and the cop have interviewed a glasses-bedecked therapist (the always excellent Rachael Harris) and he’s worked his voodoo on her and she lusts for him (he tells her he’s carnal heroin and she shouldn’t think about sex with him because he’s dangerous and I threw up in my mouth a little). But even under his spell, she pinpoints that the cop makes him uncomfortable and asks him why, genuinely curious, and he’s genuinely taken aback (there’s that little bit of vulnerability again). He makes a deal with her: He’ll come back and have sex with her if she gives them the info they need (he actually says, “We can take a trip to Poundtown”), and then he and the cop leave and I thought, “Well, that was a terrible waste of Rachael Harris.” But after the main plot is over, bad guy punished, cop recovering in hospital with cute daughter and perfect make-up, brother stopping by to threaten again (dear god, the dialogue in this is awful), Lucifer goes back to the therapist and says, “Here’s the deal. We can have as much naked cuddle time as you desire, but you’re going to have to listen to me, too. There’s a few things that I’d like to discuss with you, you know, just an existential dilemma or two. Deal?” And Harris says, “Yes,” with a great deal of four-eyed satisfaction.

I’m not interested in the relationship the show wants me to invest in, the one with the cop because (a) she and Lucifer have no real conflict (bickering doesn’t count), (b) she has no vulnerabilities in her relationship with him or he with her and (c) I have nothing to build expectation on because I’ve seen this done a thousand times.

But I do want to see him with the therapist because (a) he’s going to ensorcel her and even under his spell she’s going to be able to call his game, so they’ll have a power conflict, (b) and because he’s the Devil she’s vulnerable to him; because he’s in crisis he’s vulnerable to her (as the therapist she has all the power), and they’re caught in the crucible of therapy/sex so that’s two servings of vulnerability with some vulnerability on the side, and (c) because of the contrast of his hot, calculated charm and her cool, carnal intelligence, there’s a possibility they’ll be interesting together, a contrast that’s heightened by their physical appearances: his movie-star good looks and her librarian frumpiness.

Or let’s put it in terms of expectation. You have two choices of story:

Handsome Devil and tough-talking, beautiful cop team up to bicker and solve murders in LA.


Handsome Devil and smart but smitten therapist navigate an uneasy relationship based on undeniable physical (hers) and emotional (his) needs. While solving crimes in LA.

Lucifer Relationship

I not only know which one I want to read or watch, I know which one I want to write.

So here are Crusie’s Rules Suggestions for Good Chemistry Between Characters and Readers

1. Begin with characters that are flawed and fascinating, interesting because they’re not perfect or all-powerful.
2. Show how they handle their problems through actions that further characterize them, avoiding cliches at all cost and building in reversals to intrigue your reader.
3. Show how their actions and interactions with others move them out of their comfort zones and make them vulnerable.
4. Establish legitimate conflicts that come from the characters, not from some clever premise or contrived situation or god knows, some tired cliche like bickering buddy cops.
5. Make the characters and the conflicts intriguing enough that the reader/viewer begins to speculate about what happens next because they’re not sure; if they already know how the cliche is going to play out, then the expectation is boring; if they’re encountering something new, off-beat, challenging, then the what-if game becomes a lot more fun.

I should probably mention here that the chances of Lucifer ending up with the therapist are approximately zero, but I thought that about Oliver ending up with Felicity, too, and she’s sporting his diamond now, so who knows? Okay, I know: it’s going to be the same old, same old with the bickerish Lady Cop, and he will come to love her adorable little daughter, and he will defeat her condescending ex-husband, and maybe I won’t watch next week after all. But as an example of how not to make a character and a relationship fun for the reader/viewer, you can’t beat the Lucifer pilot.

NOTE: Krissie just wrote to tell me that she loved the Lucifer pilot. She suggests that next week we watch it together next Tuesday on Slack and then put the transcript on our blogs, so next Wednesday, there’ll be a Stuart-Crusie argument about Let’s-Take-A-Trip-To-Poundtown Lucifer. (I think the last time a phrase annoyed me that much was “clue cake.”) (I don’t have network TV so I have to watch on Hulu or Amazon; Slack is the chat platform we’re using now.)

19 thoughts on “Questionable: Character Chemistry with the Reader

  1. Thank you! That helps a lot, and just in time for revision #3. Quick question – what does building in a reversal mean?

    1. It’s when an event happens that causes either the plot to reverse directions and expectation or the character to reveal a part of himself or herself that reverses expectation.
      In this case, Lucifer is an all-powerful being so the expectation is that he will be unflappable. But when the therapist catches him out, he’s taken aback, and in an reversal of expectation, he goes back to her and asks for help (in his own jackass way).
      No matter how innovative your premise is, it’s been used before, which means readers have expectations about it, and if those expectations are fulfilled, they’re bored. A reversal makes it new again. Turning points are usually reversals, but they can be anywhere, large or small (as in the case of the one brief interchange with the therapist).

  2. I’m with Krissie. I liked it.

    I was ready to come here and go, “Jenny, have you seen Lucifer, yet?” Only to find you have, and weren’t pleased.

    The set-up of the “desires” is most excellent and the whole “You didn’t sell your soul to devil” bit tells us that what we think he is, he actually isn’t. So the question is – what is he then? I wanted that answered.

    I lurved, lurved, lurved the catch by the therapist even while she was ensorcelled.

    Also, Angel with blade wings!!!

    1. One of the problems I have with the show is that it’s not really addressing the things that are most interesting about the Devil coming to Earth.

      They seem to have jettisoned the idea that Lucifer was the Lord of the Light who fell because he rebelled against God, so that tosses the most interesting part of his origin story.

      They’ve also dumped the angry, defiant, vulnerable part of that story, Lucifer swearing he can make a heaven of hell and building a kingdom down there. In this iteration, hell is just a boring prison where he pokes people.

      They’ve also lost the thing that makes Lucifer most sympathetic in Paradise Lost: He’s stuck in hell. He’s making the best of a bad deal, he’s defiant to the end (except there is no end), but he’s not going anywhere.

      This Lucifer is like a trust fund kid suffering from affluenza. Every now and then his big brother flies in and says, “Dad’s really mad at you,” but Lucifer just shrugs. He’s part of the 1%, looking out at the little people, amused.

      And his dialogue is so bad, it’s painful. I mean look at what he says when he goes back to the therapist and tells her he needs help: “I’ll give you naked cuddle time.” Lucifer Lord of Light would not use a stupid/cute line like that. Try to imagine Tony Stark, the nearest analog I can think of, saying something like that. It’s fourteen-year-old dialogue. Worse than that, it’s girly dialogue. I’ll buy him telling her he’s “carnal heroin;” that’s obnoxious but it’s adult obnoxious. But “naked cuddle time”? She doesn’t want to be cuddled naked, she’s made it very clear she wants Satanic sex and lots of it.

      So yeah, I think the writers have blown a possibly great premise. But it’s a pilot, and pilots are often terrible. The thing that makes me very skeptical of this getting better is that it’s the writing that’s so bad. So bad that really good actors like John Pankow can’t sell the dialogue. The only reason that the therapist is such a stand-out is because Harris is taking the role and running with it, going over the top which is the only way to say that stuff. Plus the female lead is so damn boring my mind wanders when she’s onscreen. I’ve seen a lot of comparisons to Castle, and I had the same problem there.

      Yeah, I really did not like it. But next week Krissie and I will watch is again, and we’ll post the transcript so you’ll get the other side, too.

  3. Crusie’s Rules of Writing are a lot more applicable than Robert’s in current entertainment landscape. So thank you. I actually printed.

    Also, what are the odds of you teaching at One Day University? Your posts on here sound like perfect subject matter for their events. I took classes with Lapadula on screenwriting and 5 movies that changed the industry. Amazing stuff.

      1. McDaniel is nice, even if they didn’t offer a certificate program …. You can always teach online like Lani :))) I loved her workshops.

        P.S. I’m trying to start a petition where you teach and we take your classes, can you tell? 🙂

  4. I, for one, will very much look forward to this argument! I might even be motivated enough to go watch the pilot and see what I think…

    …then again, I’m not sure I could stand the douche described above. I was so very excited when I heard they were making this–I love Gaiman’s Lucifer in the Sandman comics–but the Lucifer from the comics does not seem to have translated well (at all??). To the point where I thought that this must be a separate, competing show when I heard you describing it.

    But it’s the same show… Argh!

  5. I love Tom Ellis (playing Lucifer) with an unholy zeal. I loved him so much on Miranda, and I know that he has a good sense of how to play a character. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Hated the relationship with the cop. Loved him with Rachel Harris. Here’s hoping that this is terrible pilot syndrome, and I’m hoping that ep 2 is better. There is something with which to play here, if they figure out how to do it.

  6. I watched it, of course. The dialogue was pretty awful. They did that thing where he’s fascinated by the fact that she’s not vulnerable to his usual schtick, a la Edward and Bella in Twilight (and half the other paranormal romances on the market).

    And while his interactions with the therapist were far more interesting than those with cop lady, I hate the idea of watching him work through his problems and become a nice guy with her help.

  7. No love for Mazikeen?

    The first scene with Principal Angel I thought was good, and the second one was like, “Come on people, get a second take. And a script doctor.”

    I thought it was fun. Not life-changing, but fun. It’s interesting that there’s some of the source material (Gaiman’s Sandman, the Lucifer standalone title) that they’re keeping, and then the rest is just absolutely made up, so yeah, there’s no reason for them NOT to have a therapist thing going on.

    I did like the cop/Lucifer scene at the end. And the kid. And douche dad is from something, and when I look him up I’ll go “duh,” but I wanted to punch his face from the get-go so I’m guessing he was a jerk in whatever that was too. I really hope they get more into police corruption, since that’s where they started and it came up a lot.

    1. He was Blood on Arrow.
      The thing is, the Douche Dad is such a cliche. But yeah, a script doctor. And a crash cart.

  8. I liked it, too. Exactly why some hated it. He IS like a 14-year old boy, escaped from parental control and acting like a brat. Even though a gazillion years old chronologically, he’s never had a chance to mature. And his descriptions of his allure and expertise made me laugh. I picture this as a growing up theme. Not because redeemed because he is the devil, but more grounded maybe…so to speak.

    1. How’s he going to grow up? Everything he says is true, so everything he says is reinforced.
      You’re right, he’s playing the naughty schoolboy which is a terrible thing to do Lucifer. If the writers have decided to ignore the Gaiman source material, they could at least have gotten the Cliff Notes for Milton.

  9. Introducing the fascinating protagonist, huh…

    The very first thing we see in Leverage is drunk Nate. At his most flawed, and Dubenich exploits his vulnerability about his son to reel him into the job.
    The very first thing we see in Person of Interest is hobo Reese on the subway, and we’ll later learn that he was on his way to commit suicide. At his most flawed, as a result of the government having exploited him.
    Fringe starts with the plot-of-the-week cold open, but the first thing we see of Olivia is her with John Scott, wishing that their relationship didn’t have to be a secret. At her most vulnerable.
    I, um, haven’t watched “Rose” yet. But in Eleventh Hour, minus the action opening, (a Doctor not in control of his body or TARDIS) the opening sequence is Eleven and Amelia at their most vulnerable, followed by Eleven’s big flaw of leaving and returning too late.

    Haven’t watched the unaired Buffy pilot. Welcome to the Hellmouth opens with the Darla fakeout, (highlighting the vulnerability in horror tropes) and then we have Buffy at the mercy of a nightmare, followed by her uncertainty about having moved to a new town and starting at a new school.
    City Of opens with Angel apparently drunk at a bar, pining over Buffy. Later it’s revealed that it’s an act, but the important thing is that drunk lovelorn Angel is still the first image we see of him.
    The Firefly pilot opens with a confident Mal, (overconfidence flaw) but emotionally vulnerable, as we shortly see him broken by the sight of Command pulling out of the valley. The Train Job introduces Mal with him picking up a job covertly in a bar, and then playing Chinese Checkers recklessly.
    Dollhouse’s broadcast pilot opens on a vulnerable Caroline…but Echo remains a cipher. Fail, and probably a portent of how the show will struggle to find its footing.

    1. Even a farce like Galavant. It starts with Galavant the hero and his beautiful lady love, and then she’s captured but it’s okay because Galavant will ride to rescue her, but when he fights his way into the castle to save her, she tells him she’s going to stay with the king and become queen because she really likes being rich and powerful. And then the king’s henchman knocks him cold and the opening title appears. The next scene says “A year later” and he’s passed out drunk.

      Vulnerability. It’s everything in reader sympathy and attachment.

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