So, Roadies, the new show on Showtime from Cameron Crowe is proving to be a Master Class in How Not to Write in many ways. The show doesn’t lack some charm, and the world of a tour crew with a major band is kind of interesting to see, but it’s amazing how far Crowe—who once had a golden ear for dialogue—has fallen in recent years. When was the last time Cameron Crowe made something people talked about in a positive way?
Roadies is populated by likable actors, which is the only reason, really, it’s watchable. And every episode offers an object lesson in writing mistakes. The example we’ll pull comes from the pilot episode, which of course has to do a lot of work to introduce the premise, the characters, the setting, and the season-long conflicts and storylines. And Crowe makes a fundamental, if minor (but irritating) error when he introduces the Quirky Character Detail What is Forgotten Immediately and Never Mentioned Again. This is an error that a lot of writers make in their stories and novels, so it’s useful to take a gander.
I AM QUIRKY AND ADORABLE, DAMMIT
In Roadies, Imogen Poots plays Kelly Ann, who has a junior role with the roadie crew. She’s supposed to leave for school in the pilot, but of course is seduced by the love and sense of family she feels with her co-workers to eschew higher education in favor of an adventure on the road—fair enough, a believable if not particularly inspired bit of motivation. Poots is, of course, adorable, and she plays Kelly Ann with a bit of measured intelligence; her expressions of doubt and suspicion whenever someone tells her something do a lot to make her character at least seem interesting.
Now, creating and defining characters is hard. It’s very easy to reduce every character down to a trait, or an ethnicity. In fact, a lot of writers start off with little more than that, and add in the details later. And sometimes, in an effort to establish a character before you’ve done the hard work with dialog and action to define them, it’s common to attach weird little details.
Now, weird little details can be inspiring when they react with dialog and action. The way Heath Ledger licked his lips as The Joker in The Dark Knight was inspired; combined with his statements, actions, and appearance, it was a wonderful little tic that underscored his squirrely energy. But this goes wrong when it’s the only thing that differentiates a character—but it also goes wrong when you immediately forget all about that quirky trait after introducing it.
In the Roadies pilot, it is established that Kelly Ann eats off of other people’s plates, a mildly rude yet quirky (oh god quirky) little tic. It’s mentioned explicitly as a reason another character doesn’t like her, and then there is a moment when Kelly Ann does it in a very obvious and ostentatious way, to drive the point home.
It’s easy to imagine that Crowe, faced with a character he’d made blonde, beautiful, young, and smart, needed some way to make her seem, you know, interesting. So he gave her this totally innocuous trait, and made sure we noticed it. And then he completely forgets all about it and the behavior is never mentioned again in subsequent episodes. And that’s annoying. It’s a dumb detail, but if you’re going to go through the trouble of putting a flag on it and making certain we notice it as a way of making the character interesting, then you have to remember it. Otherwise it distracts.
So, when writing, keep that in mind: Giving your character a gonzo detail to give them shape and a memorable aspect is fine. Just don’t forget you did it when you start Chapter Two.