As the first season of Showtime’s “The Affair” wound down, I was compelled to write a blog entry about the TV show. Because I wanted to share how I enjoyed the show’s treatment of character perspective.
Before I get into this, first a little bit about the series. As you can guess from the title, it’s about infidelity — how an affair began, and the consequences of it. Here’s the description from Showtime’s website:
At once deeply observed and intriguingly elusive, THE AFFAIR explores the emotional effects of an extramarital relationship. Noah is a New York City schoolteacher and novelist who is happily married, but resents his dependence on his wealthy father-in-law. Alison is a young waitress trying to piece her life and marriage back together in the wake of a tragedy. The provocative drama unfolds when Alison and Noah meet in Montauk at the end of Long Island.
As a writer, I was keenly interested in the format of “The Affair.” Each episode was split into two sections: Noah’s side and Alison’s side. (Dominic West plays Noah Solloway and Ruth Wilson plays Alison Lockhart.) These two characters relayed events of a summer on Montauk to a police detective.
This split format made for an exploration of “he said, she said.” In the beginning of the season, the same scenes were told from the two different perspectives. And from that, you got to see the action through the scene of each character.
Which created an interesting study in character and seeing the events through their eyes. Because, of course, the characters came from very different places. A man and a woman. Different ages. Different homes (New York City and Montauk). One with four kids, and one who lost a child years before (not a spoiler alert, since this is told early on).
In the characters’ retelling of the same scenes, how they differ was very interesting. Their clothes were different, for example. In Noah’s retelling, he usually wore cooler clothes that seemed of a younger style. Also in Noah’s retelling, Alison wore clothing that showed more skin. When Alison narrated the scenes, the colors of her clothes were more muted.
And then, you had how each character described the affair began. Both claimed to be the one who was more hesitant, unsure, and wanted to take more time to make up their mind. Even though both admitted to mutual attraction, they described the other as more eager to start the affair.
I took all of this as a lesson in storytelling. Because so much of story is shown through character, about how the character perceives events and makes decisions. Characters come at the world from very different places. These affect how they think and act. In writing a story, an author has to use that background in framing how the character moves in the story.
How a character sees the world and acts within it shows a great deal about that character. Their background, personality, what they feel is important. That comes out in how they tell the story as narrators, as well as what they choose to do in a story.
I very much admire authors who do this well. When the decisions of the characters make sense with who the characters are. Because there are books where I’ve thought, “That doesn’t seem right.” This comes up when a character did something that struck me as out of character with who they were. That can jump out at you. But when the actions and decisions fit in character, the writing is much smoother.
True, I write erotica under a pen name — and the actions in my stories involve sex. Still, there are relationships in my writing. Characters who come from different backgrounds and have to interact with other characters. That brings up a variety of emotions: gratitude, love, friskiness, jealousy, anxiety, and anger. And I hope I strike a chord with what the characters say and do, how those fit in with who they are.
Also, I write stories that aren’t erotica under my real name — and I hope for the same thing there. Because I certainly don’t want a reader to think, “That doesn’t seem right.” I hope the actions fit, because that’s staying true to the characters. And that makes for a better story.
Photo of Montauk lighthouse and beach is from Neil R, used here under the non-commercial Creative Commons license. Click here for his Flickr page.