What’s wrong with this picture shot on the set of the Emmy-Award winning TV series Mad Men?” Are you wondering, “How did Don Draper get an iPhone in 1965?”
For a second, I was startled, until I looked closely at the photo from Time Magazine. That’s when I realized the actors were off camera. That explained Jon Hamm’s iPhone. But there’s another reason why I was startled. Part of the success of the Mad Men TV series is its meticulous attention to period details–in terms of clothing, furnishings, speech, characters’ attitudes, and historical events. And, just as important, the details are integrated seamlessly into the narrative, so the viewer is never jolted back to the present-day. This guideline was meticulously followed by the creators of Mad Men as well as masters of creative fiction. In fact, it is our third key component in creating a compelling fictional world:
3. Don’t let the reader see the duct tape. In other words, the creative artist needs to do his/her homework and collect information about the characters, the location, period details, and historical facts. All this happens behind the scenes. Then, the writer weaves these carefully-chosen threads into the fictional narrative. When writers get lazy or sloppy, they construct scenes with descriptions or dialog that reveal gaps in research or inconsistencies in character or plot, which can break the fictional spell. They can also insert pages of ponderous historical explanation, which is equally deadly. All of these inconsistencies or gaps or long explanations will drive the reader away.
To illustrate this point, I’ll use an example from my novel, The Incident at Montebello. To craft scenes set in a tailor shop in Italy, I had to learn about sewing in the 1930’s. Were the sewing machines electric or were they powered by foot pedals? Did men’s pants have zippers or buttons? How far below the knee were women’s hemlines? (Answers: sewing machines were not electric because most small villages didn’t have electricity; pants had buttons, not zippers; and ladies’ hems fell to mid-calf for the younger girls and to the ankle for the older women.) Here’s another example from the TV series, Da Vinci’s Demons. Tom Riley, who plays Leonardo, does not look like a man from the 15th Century because his style of dress, hairstyle, way of speaking, and mannerisms are very 21st Century–as you can see in the two photos below. Yes, he is handsome, and yes, the setting is Italy–one of my favorite places in the world, but I still couldn’t watch this series. I just couldn’t believe in the character or the situation. Apparently, I wasn’t alone in this–judging from the poor ratings on IMDB.com.
This laziness, haste or inattention to detail can also happen in character development. Instead of creating complex, multi-dimensional people that “live and breathe,” inexperienced writers can rely on stereotypical characters with transparent motivations and reactions. These “shallow Hals” are predictable, and do not grow and change as a result of their experiences. Yes, we all know people who stubbornly cling to their “old” ways, but would you want to spend an extended amount of time with them? I doubt it. Great characters in fiction are fully realized–thanks to the writers who have given us glimpses into their minds and hearts. Think of Emma Bovary or Scarlett O’Hara. They have strengths and weaknesses, they sometimes act foolishly and impulsively, but in the course of the novel, they change. Sometimes this change is incremental and not dramatic, but it does occur.
To help create, well-rounded, complete characters, you might want to develop a character sketch . Here’s a link to a useful character profile tool from The Script Lab. I am using it now as I work on my second novel and I’m finding it very helpful.
What examples do you have of books or TV series that “show the duct tape?” Have you stopped watching or reading them because of this?