I was a bit late to the party, but I finally did it. I finally watched THE WIRE.
And, yes, it is the most amazing TV series ever.
Talk to any devotee of the show and they’ll give you the same reason as to why: it’s just so REAL. Before I watched it, I wondered how these people could comment on its accuracy, given that said recommenders were neither police officers nor drug dealers (as far as I knew). After completing the series yesterday, though, I understood. Maybe the details bolster the show’s quality, but the realest thing about THE WIRE is the characters.
As a writer, there are five characterization techniques I am taking away from this show in order to craft better characters in my own stories (don’t worry–no spoilers).
1. Nobody is entirely good or bad. The corner boys and higher ranking drug dealers are not monsters. The police officers are not saints. The drug addicts are not ghosts. And, of course, there is subtlety in the extent to which goodness and badness mix within an individual. Some police officers are shittier human beings than others. Some gangsters are more honorable than others. Everybody is complicated.
2. Morality is flexible. Most of us like to think we have a moral code by which we abide. An ethical system guiding our decisions, helping us make sense of the world. While that may be true some of the time, certain situations demand difficult decisions.
3. Most People are selfish. It’s a sad truth, but a truth nonetheless. When it comes down to it, a vast majority of these sad sacks of flesh and blood will look out for number one. And a lot of systemic problems are nothing but the combined selfshness of individuals. But note the qualifier–there are a noble few who will sacrfice self be it out of honor, loyalty, or compassion.
4. Everything is connected. No man is an island. Sometimes people are connected in practical ways, through blood or location or their professional lives, and sometimes they’re connected in unseen ways. A does this and B does that, so C does this. People exist and operate within contexts that impact others tangibly and intangibly.
5. Change is hard-won. Thanks to modern storytelling conventions, audiences have come to expect the main character to change for the better as a result of his/her struggles. Yet anyone can tell you this is horribly unrealistic. In real life, yes, some people improve. But others become worse human beings, and still others remain the same despite what they’ve gone through.
As Tupac told us so many years ago, that’s just the way it is.