Reality TV is not useless. It is awesome and I am a big fan. I know it’s not the popular opinion among intellectuals. “Real” artists groan and scoff at it’s baseness, but they cannot deny that it has come, it has conquered and it isn’t going anywhere.
Storytelling has evolved
over centuries and technology has played a massive part in that evolution. Before spoken word, there was a version of sign language that we used to warn of invader of threats and motivate searches for new sources of food and shelter. Verbal language made it possible to tell tales around the fire, and myths were created and shared orally through time. Cave drawings were the first storybooks. Plays were the first version of television. With the invention of the printing press, whole industries were created overnight: news, gossip columns, advertisements, religious pamphlets, mass produced books.
People became addicted to information, to reading, to knowing all that was going on in the world and their place in it; there was no turning back. Radio was born feeding that addiction, then silent film was introduced, television came about, color tv made it better, and now there's the internet, providing thousands and thousands of storytelling variations, including YouTube; one the older folks have a real hard time swallowing. But, so it goes...and goes, changing and evolving.
At the end of the day, whether your snobby ass only goes to the opera, reads Russian Novels and stays informed with The New York Times, or if you shamelessly run TLC on loop, do your daily reading on Instagram, and get your news from Facebook, you, me, and everyone else: we are information and story addicts. We want to feel like we’re not alone, to know we’re not alone in our experiences, and we want to be forwarned of possible threats and learn ways to improve our lives. It’s no wonder our desire for both information and entertainment have given birth to a whole new version of storytelling: reality TV.
Hear me out
I know you’re thinking: reality TV, informative? Please show me the ways in which I’ve learned about myself and the world by Keeping up with the Kardashians. Okay. Not worried. I can do that.
Besides the obvious informative reality shows like programs on the nature channel, PBS, Discovery and CNN (Planet Earth and Parts Unknown—the best). You are learning things, soaking up new bits of information in ways you didn’t intend. Anyone who’s watched Top Chef, Chopped or any baking competition suddenly has been gifted a refined pallet. They know to never pour a sauce on top of a crisped fish skin, that the fryer is always a safe bet, and not to wait until the last minute to use the ice cream machine. Anyone into HGTV now has an upper hand when they start buying a house. They know they probably shouldn’t buy in San Fransisco unless they want to live in a shoe box, that they can easily trade in their car for a three bedroom house in Mississippi, and to check behind dry-wall for shiplap. Shows like American Ninja Warrior, The Biggest Loser and Queer Eye For The Straight Guy send the message never give up, to challenge ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally, and to grow beyond our limited view of ourselves. Hoarders and Intervention show us to donate our shit to Goodwill on the regular, and that our huffing curiosity would not bear a happy ending. These types of reality shows demonstrate what not to do, they teach us certain skills, give us the confidence to do-it-ourselves, and the courage to travel the world.
And then there are the character based reality shows. The ones that—on the surface—teach us nothing. They appear vapid, foolish, a complete waste of anyone’s time. I’m talking about my personal favorites: The Bachelor, all of the Real Housewives, anything on Bravo, even Keeping up with the Kardashians. By viewing these shows, you can become a pro at spotting red flags in potential mates, you can see first hand talking behind people’s backs is never a good idea (especially if it’s being filmed), gag gifts are rarely funny, and the best memories and the most fulfilling relationships can be found in ones own family.
As a storyteller
I get so excited by these shows, not just by the drama and the conflict but, oh happy day, by the characters. Casting Directors and Producers are storytellers and they need some credit already. A writer builds characters from scratch. We pull from people we know, people from history and popular culture. We take traits from all over and smash them together to invent a human. Casting Directors mine for them. They sift through hundreds—if not thousands—of people and command the delicate task of selecting characters that will play off of one another in the most scandalous way. Producers set up situations that might provoke cast members to their edge, creating juicy, dramatic show arcs. The better these people are at doing their job, the better the story, the higher the drama and the more satisfying the resolution. Learn from those excellent, under-celebrated storytellers.
As a writer, there are certain things you can take away from my personal favorite shows. Below, I’ve listed a few things to think about when creating your characters.
People Lie All the Time
People lie, your characters should lie. Whether it’s a white lie or a big lie, you have to understand that people are programmed to protect themselves in the moment. They will do and say whatever they want to pave the least resistant path. Of course, they’ll hopefully learn down the line that the truth will set them free, but in the interest of building drama, and accurately reflecting the real world, you have to make them lie (unless you're character is honest to a fault like Jim Carrey in Liar Liar, but in that movie, because blatant honesty is so uncommon, that characteristic created the drama). The Real Housewives do it ALL THE TIME. It’s incredible. You’d think they would register the camera and know that they were being recorded, that eventually their friend will see what they really said about them, but they almost never do (seasoned ones Like Vanderpum know better, but oddly enough, Vicki has not caught on). This is such an important lesson. You might think you’re writing a character that is too stupid, but it’s not about intelligence, it’s about self preservation. Like real people, you're characters want to avoid tough situations and pain. They lie.
People Choose Sex First
Remember your male character has a penis and his penis wants to find a home, and your female character has a vagina and her vagina wants to find a resident. Millionaire Matchmaker and The Bachelor franchise tell us in so many images and situations that in love, people don’t learn by ways of advice. They will not hear you through the television screaming not to take that girl with the sultry voice, or the guy spitting out the most compliments. They won’t take action based on your past; they have to make their own mistakes. They will pick the one they are most attracted first, the one that speaks to them physically, who speaks the language of their genitals. Remember this when you’re character is on their journey to find love.
Love at First Site is the Exception
We all love Romeo and Juliet, but in the real world, it doesn’t always go that way. Love at first sight is lovely and all, but those feelings aren’t based on real love, they are based on lust. I’d recently heard a theory that Shakespear intended for Romeo and Juliet to be a comedy, and it blew my mind. The theory is that Shakespear wrote the play to demonstrate how ridiculous young love was. That to fall in love, get married and kill yourself in the span of a few days, is insane. So why did Romeo & Juliet get the reputation as being the greatest love story of all time? Why did audiences latch onto this concept as a real, viable way to find love? And why are accelerated love stories found on shows like The Bachelor still so successful?
People want to believe in that instant, powerful, overwhelming, passionate love. It’s way more alluring than the steady, reliable, enduring, arranged-marriage kind. Your goal as a writer is to entertain of course, but beware: your instant love story might come off as ridiculous in the end. If you want to create a more informative kind of love story, a story that is more relatable, more real, just remember to allow your characters the time to adapt to one another, and to mature before they go all in (and if you’re creating the anti-love story, if you’re going for coming-of-age, do the opposite).
Friendships Are Important Love Stories
Some of the most lasting relationships that come out of shows like The Bachelor franchises are the friendships created on set. The women on The Real Housewives have real, deep feelings for one another. Jealousy, love, resentment, and joy are all very present. Make sure your supporting characters, the friend relationships, are just as dynamic and interesting as they are in real life.
Reality is in Revealing Details
I had my husband sit down with me and watch the latest Keeping up with the Kardashians episode because we got to see Khloe deal with some regular pregnancy issues, things that aren't often discussed anywhere, not in novels, not in sitcoms—nowhere (except maybe mommy chat rooms). I was so happy to see someone being so honest about their experience. We got to see her nervous before her ultrasound, dealing with the unsavory side effects of progesterone supplements, and the most relatable of them all: gender disappointment. She really wanted a boy, her husband wanted a boy, and when she found out she was having a girl, she was crushed. I've experienced all of these things and I was grateful I could see that I was not alone. As storytellers we have the opportunity to share part of our lives, to insert details about our bodily functions, our seemingly trivial fears, and our politically incorrect feelings and opinions. It's so important to insert these details into our stories, to bring our readers close and help them to feel less ashamed of their reality.
Villains Are Real
In all of my favorite character based reality show franchises, there is always a villain. Whether it’s a cast member that carries their villain status through multiple seasons, or whether they are playing the villain for the day, they are the most captivating. They are the ones that make us feel all of the feels. The great thing about reality show villians as oppose to comic book villians, is that these people are REAL. They exist and they are really saying these things and making these choices. It’s incredible! Cynics can argue that they’re playing a role, but producers will defend the reality of the situation, and they'll often admit how surprised they are by what stories unfold. And why should it be so unbelievable? Regular people are terribly flawed!
I recommend watching these shows and studying the villain. Listen to their dialogue and observe their expressions (if you can make them out through all the botox). You’ll learn that most of the villains are people that have clear goals, they usually want something so bad they’re willing to say and do anything to get it, and they don’t often put other people’s feelings first. They’re often insecure and have the most at stake—their business, money, reputation, and love lives. They don’t think beyond their current circumstance. They’re drowning in their lies, fears and insecurities and they often have little awareness or control over their emotional lives. Also, it’s important to remember that they aren’t all bad. Often times, they are the most fun, they have the most energy, and they have fulfilling relationships outside of the one you’re witnessing play out.
Okay, that’s it for now, but I had the MOST fun writing about this subject, so I’ll most likely return.
You’re assignment: watch reality television. Have faith that most of the small moments and definitely the participants themselves are very real. And so what if contestants or participants are hyper aware of the cameras? They are making the judgment call to appear a certain way and that is character revealing in and of itself. Be the detective, find the truth and apply that knowledge to your storytelling endeavors.
Happy binge watching!