It's no secret that I have a major soft spot for procedural dramas. And, I've recently become rather obsessed with CBS's Criminal Minds. I'm talking binge-watching-the-first-9-seasons-in-a-matter-of weeks obsessed. There are so many things this show does that make it a superior example of the genre. The plotting, the writing, the acting -- it's all laudable.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the show, the one that makes it so uniquely tantalizing, is the very nature of the Behavioral Analysis Unit. The show's not a classic sense of "whodunit" -- but why. This delving deep into the minds of the "unsub" each week is what makes it worth watching. And, I think there are a few lessons that we writers can glean from those BAU profilers about how to craft our characters:
What Happened to You As a Child Really Does Matter
It's no lie that a good majority of the "unsubs" throughout the show have had pretty traumatic childhoods. And, more often than not, these childhood events are a telltale sign of why a killer acts the way he/she does. Not just that, but the team members of the BAU have all suffered individual traumas that seem to have led them to their careers, as well as who they are in their professional and personal lives.
What we writers can take from this is the importance of character motivation. We have to understand what drives a character, why certain things affect a character in a specific way. Oftentimes, the more complex the better. Discovering everything you can about your characters' personal and family histories tells you who they have become as an adult.
More importantly, it helps to explain the "why." J.J. Jaraeau has a special bond with victims who lose siblings, because her own sister committed suicide. A particular "unsub" hunts nannies because his own nanny was responsible for the accidental drowning of his baby sister. While these examples are perhaps a bit extreme, they point to something very real about how motivations -- reasons for being -- are quintessential in creating fully actualized and vibrant characters.
There is Something to "Presenting the Profile"
Anybody familiar with the episode-by-episode structure of Criminal Minds knows that there will come a point in each episode where a profiler says "it's time to present the profile." Cut to a room full of law enforcement officers taking copious notes as the profilers take turns presenting every speculation they've gained from investigating the behaviors of the "unsub." While I'm sure this isn't exactly how it happens in real life, it's a key moment for the show -- the time when everything starts to come together.
As writers, we also have a strong need profile our characters. This process is different for each individual. Some writers know exactly who they are dealing with at the start of the writing process. Some writers learn about who their characters are as they go -- thank goodness for first drafts. But I think there's merit in thinking about our character constructions like a profile being delivered over the course of a piece of writing.
Another important aspect in developing a profile on the show is how the profile evolves with new information. This is key to crafting our own characters as well. No matter how well you think you know the person you are starting to write about, leave the possibility open that you might discover game changing aspects along the way. Rigidity in character construction can have you writing yourself into a corner. Profiles change, just as characters do.
Minimal Amounts of Backstory Can Still Pack a Major Punch
Backstory is an integral part of Criminal Minds. As already discussed, understanding the individual history of an "unsub" is key to catching him/her. Perhaps even more interestingly, understanding more and more of the backstories of each of the profilers makes the characters increasingly compelling as the seasons roll on.
What I believe is most impressive in both instances, is how well this backstory is juxtaposed with present action. In the case of the "unsubs," the information discovered about a character through investigation or Garcia's technical prowess never takes away from the suspense of catching the killer in the present moment. We get everything we need to understand the "unsub" without being taken away from the intensity of the timeline for justice.
Likewise, the profilers' own personal histories develop slowly throughout the show, and never overpower their work. We don't see a great deal of their lives outside of the office, but we see enough to know who they are what they care about. Similarly, the number of episodes where a case ties directly to the backstory of one of the profilers is uncommon, making those occasions feel like a grand discovery, something worth waiting for.
What the show does so well in the area of backstory is balance and constraint. This is so important. We're all probably guilty of those moments of "info dump" where we try to tell everything we can about a character and/or the situation in a single sitting. Not only is this distracting, but a great deal of the information is usually unnecessary.
The key to great backstory that the Criminal Minds folks seem to have discovered is to provide us with the most important information in the least diverting was possible. This keeps the suspense high, while allowing the audience to be well informed.
Just Because the Audience Knows More Than the Protagonist(s) Doesn't Mean it's Not Suspenseful
It's easy for writers to hold cards behind our backs when it comes to plot. We are, after all, in some kind of control over our stories, and we are the ones who choose who knows what when. The problem with this is that, sometimes, in the name of suspense, we play things a little too close to the vest. This can be frustrating for a reader, make them feel like we are intentionally playing games.
A show like Criminal Minds runs a high risk of falling into this very problem. However, what the show does that keeps this from happening on a regular basis is that it lets the audience in on some of the great mysteries of an episode early on. Sometimes we see the face of our "unsub" in the opening scene. The suspense of the show doesn't rest in the audience knowing who the culprit is, but in the process of how the profilers figure it out and stop the killer.
This is a valuable lesson. We don't need cheap tricks and out-of-the-blue developments to keep us engaged because the suspense resides elsewhere. Sometimes witnessing a character figure out what we already know is the most suspenseful thing of all. This structure also makes room for the occasional major twist, because we trust that we are not being yanked around from the start. There's a unique kind of authenticity there.
Sometimes the Most Poignant Moments Can be the Smallest
There have been plenty of gut wrenching, jaw dropping moments throughout the run of Criminal Minds. And, they are certainly well-placed and interesting. But, for me, some of the most poignant moments are the smallest.
A brief, sweet exchange between Morgan and Garcia, a subtle change in expression when something in a case harkens back to a trauma we've seen one of our profilers suffer in previous seasons. These moments are truly memorable.
Part of this comes in the luxury of developing characters over such an extended period. I've always felt like a novel relates more to a TV series, whereas a shorter work is more like a film. But no matter the length of the piece, I think it's important to realize that you don't always have to hit the reader over the head to create an emotional experience. More often than not, subtlety reigns supreme.
The next time you catch an episode of Criminal Minds, see what appeals toy our writer's lens.