Reality TV, Shallow Characters, and Book Reviewers


In my humble opinion reality TV will be the death of television. Obviously, not many people agree with me – as far as I can tell – but I still feel that way. Every week some new reality show is being proclaimed the next big thing on some station or another.

Is there really a need for another dancing show, another “family feud” show of some sort or another, or another “improvement” show about some off-the-wall subject or “fix it up” type thing? And do those same things really have to invade our books as well?

So, here’s my question: Are reality shows, in-depth characters, and complex characters more for the reader or the professional critic?

Before you completely disregard the idea, see if this makes more sense than you think.

I used to like home improvement shows. Watching a team go in and fix up an old house for a client was kind of fun. Not my favorite way to spend an evening, but interesting when I took the time to watch. Even watching a group change the life of some needy family was alright. But then came the company that couldn’t seem to live together as they flipped a house for resale, the team that fought for three fourths of the show before pulling off the impossible just before the hour ended. Shows that could have lasted for half an hour were stretched to a full hour as we watched employees fight with their bosses, friends come nearly to blows as they tried to accomplish some task, and companies who seemed to be totally dysfunctional until ten minutes before the end of the hour when they would suddenly get their act together just enough to finish the task for that week.

“Face Off”, “Hot Set”, “Flipping…Wherever”, and any of the car makeover shows would be pretty good – if they were only half an hour long and just did what their name implies. But instead we have to put up with half the show being all about who’s mad at who, which person involved is going to turn on what other person, and who’s going to be kicked off because they don’t “play nice”, or can’t work under pressure, or get too distracted to do their job because of some big emotional trauma. At that point I find myself throwing up my hands in despair and exclaiming, “It isn’t worth wading through the garbage to get to the good stuff.”

Now that “reality mindset” is invading other parts of television as well. With the “success” of “Lost” everybody seems to think that we have the template for designing a great show. The result is, we don’t seem to be able to watch a weekly serial that doesn’t possess a large quantity of “reality” elements – for those of us that don’t like those elements — tough, get used to the new reality (pun intended).

I realize that there may not be another person in the world that feels that it’s all a big, crazy “emotional roller-coaster”, but I have to believe that there are others out there that are wanting an escape from reality rather than more of the same when they watch a show, or read a book. Are you looking for an exciting, action-filled conflict between good and evil, a larger than life hero who is able to show us how things can be rather than how they are? If so, it’s you and me against the world, baby!

It may be shallow, it may be cliche, and it may be unacceptable in today’s market; but it’s a lot more fun. I grew up reading westerns that always had the same type of cowboy who could be counted on to do what was right, even if we didn’t know much of anything more about them. Is there really only a market for pieces that make you think real hard or concentrate intently to finish it? Is there a place for shallow?

And that brings us to “shallow” characters.

What defines a shallow character in a work of fiction? Is it a character that we cannot get “inside the head of”, or is it something else? There is no doubt that a well-defined fictitious character should be one that we can feel for, interact with, and root for as they attempt to overcome a larger than life obstacle. But do they have to be so “flawed”?

It seems like the characters that are “superior” and “well-rounded” are often the same type of characters that I really don’t want to spend a lot of time with. While a great villain is one that we can connect with in some way, do we really want a bad guy that’s like us? Is there something more “real” about a hero who struggles with character flaws rather than having a strong moral compass? Is a protagonist “deeper” if they see things in shades of gray rather than seeing them in black and white?

I have what I believe is a legitimate question for you; do we really need characters that are so “real” that they become people we wouldn’t want our sons and daughters to date? Is there a place for a simpler, purer, less “layered” hero or Main Character?

So, now that I’ve stated my case – and possibly turned off every published author who may choose to read this piece – let’s move to the main point. Actually, it’s just the third point (in true alliteration style), but maybe there’s some way in which we can make it the main point.

I have no idea what it’s like to make a living as a critic. To constantly search for the best of the best, to compare everything read or seen, must be a difficult way to live. I can’t imagine what it’s like to compare every book, every piece of music, or every bit of food, to some standard; but I can ask what the standard is.

I just watched a few of the early episodes of the serial “Survivors”. If you haven’t seen it, it’s the story of a small group of people who survive a world-wide pandemic. They are forced together as complete strangers, and must attempt to survive and start a new life and world. When I got done watching, my wife – who had just been listening as she worked on the computer asked a simple question, “Is there anything happy on the show?”

My answer, “They just had a birthday party, isn’t that happy?”

I was enjoying the fact that they were trying to learn to live in a way, in a world, totally impossible to understand. She was very concerned that a large part of the show focused on the unpleasant part of that quest for survival.

Now, the fact of whether you feel like I do or like my wife, it does bring up an interesting point: Is one right and one wrong? Is one better than the other?
If I were a critic watching the same show, wouldn’t I naturally tend toward one viewpoint or the other? Is it possible to completely set aside the way we would naturally respond, in order to address a conflicting way to respond?

So, here’s my real question: Have we, in an attempt to find the next block-buster, best-selling book, tried to establish criteria that only truly fits under the category of what we like?

Yeah, I know, that’s an oversimplification; but there’s usually some truth in the simple. It seems that if we have to come up with some elaborate story to explain something, it might have some problems.

So, what is it? Is there some particular criteria that determines a best-seller? Are there certain things that can be written into a story that will assure it’s success? Or is it much more subjective than that?

What’s your feeling on the matter?



11 thoughts on “Reality TV, Shallow Characters, and Book Reviewers

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  2. This was my favorite line: “Is a protagonist โ€œdeeperโ€ if they see things in shades of gray rather than seeing them in black and white?” I’m with you for the most part on the reality TV and the focus on drama, and that’s what I think it is: a focus on drama instead of real conflict. Conflict comes from the clash of good vs. evil, while drama comes from the clash of personalities. Good books/shows/movies have conflict, and okayish books/shows/movies have drama. It’s okay to have both, but you have to have conflict for a good story ๐Ÿ™‚ imho

  3. I agree with a lot of what you said here. It drives me nuts when I watch reality tv shows that last for an hour when they should only last for thirty mintues, and most of the time you get to see people arguing. Most of the time I switch channels and then come back at the end to see what the thing looks like/who won. Personally, I don’t like the name ‘reality tv show’. I don’t think reality tv shows are reality (come on, who really thinks the bachelor could happen in real life? In what situation will you have one hot guy/girl trapped in a house with like twenty beautiful members of the opposite sex for three months?). Reality tv shows are nothing but game shows–without the game. So yeah, hollywood needs to get more creative. Sure, its nice to make money, but copy cats are boring!

    As far as shallow characters–I think it depends a lot on the genre. Some genres don’t expect to have terribly complex or deep characters. It’s all about the mystery, the adventure, the love scenes, etc. Do those things right, and the shallow characters become incidental. But I will tell you, some of my favorite books are the ones where the characters are deep, dynamic, and change for the better throughout the book. Those are the ones I reread so many times I have to buy new copies because I wear them out. You may not need deep characters to sell a book or even to have a well written book, but deep characters make average books outstanding and bad books decent.

    And I believe that plenty of people feel the same about movies. Take The Avengers, for example. Part of the reason why it was so popular and successful (not just because of the gazillion of comic book fans who would watch any comic made movie) was because they took the time to give every main character their own movie or two beforehand. They went through the trouble to develop their characters. And their characters are good guys who do the right thing. You don’t see reality tv shows being made into movies, do you? (Heaven forbid someone try!) Of course not, because reality tv shows are about the formula–a weak formula at that, one with absolutely no plot. They are not about characters.

  4. You have only to read a couple Donald Maass books or read Save The Cat to know that yes, popular fiction is formula based. Save the Cat, a very popular and well-known resource book for authors, is really about screenwriting and even dictates “beats” when specific things must occur in the script to keep the audience engaged. I’d be willing to bet the same applies with “reality” TV. They are as scripted as any fiction series with planned, contrived and manipulated conflict at certain points to keep the audience engaged. I don’t think the formula is all that different than fiction, honestly, just the subject matter.

    I participated in a webinar recently led by agent and publisher Brooke Warner in which she was touting the advantages of self-publishing. One of her arguments supporting self-publishing was that with the glut of writing in the market, agents and publishers are so focused on what the “next big thing” will be– the next 50 Shades, or Harry Potter, that they often lack creativity or the incentive to take risks anymore. Problem is, it’s getting more and more difficult to predict what the “next big thing” will be.

    Maybe the same holds true for TV– they find a formula that works, and stick with it. Crime shows. Reality TV. Silly sitcoms of the 60s. Etc. Trends, until someone is brave enough to buck it and be creative.

  5. I don’t dislike reality tv – shows like Survivor, The Amazing Race, and Top Chef are among my favorites season after season. Hell, I’ll admit it – I even watch the Bachelor if the dude appeals to me. I find Hollywood to be the real culprit here because once a show works, they try to find ways to clone it.

    Look at The Voice – the singing competition where you have teams with coaches. I don’t watch it personally, but I think it has a decent fan base. So, Hollywood then decides to churn out The Face (models rather than singers) and The Taste (cooking rather than singers or models). They found a format that worked and then worked the hell out of it. I don’t think The Face or the Taste did well.

    And let’s not forget movies! How many remakes of Superman or Batman are we going to have to endure? And all the classic TV shows made into movies? They usually suck. There are so many great books out there…why can’t Hollywood find something original to do?

    Oh, and I am excited to see what happens on Celebrity Apprentice tonight. Yeah, I like reality TV.

    • Would your response be that s long as a reality show is done WELL it works, the problem occurs when we try to use a formula to create greatness?

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