Writing: Identifying the Character Tics in “Lost”

lost-sawyer_lSo I’m working through six years of Lost, watching for dropped threads, plot twists, and red herrings, when it occurs to me that what made the show so engaging was the fantastic agglomeration of characters. Well, besides the hundreds of plot twists, red herrings, and dropped threads that always ensure a rapt audience, that is. And, of course, there are the love triangles, sexual tension, heros and demons that are the bread and butter of every self-respecting soap opera. Those helped. And what about the snappy patter and morality lessons? We could also mention the fact that every episode ends in a cliff hanger. Related to that is the well constructed mystery at its core. And an incredible setting. The faux-reality TV feel of handheld shots interspersed with wide angles and rapid 360 degree swings during periods of extreme intensity maybe add to its success as well.

Perhaps. But besides the plot twists, red herrings, dropped threads, soap opera gimmickry, excellent dialogue, morality lessons, cliff hangers, engrossing plot, beautiful sets, and first-rate cinematography, I think we can safely say the show’s success is due solely to the characters.*

The people of Lost are internationally, racially, and cultural diverse. The key characters have excellent back stories, equal parts of good and bad, and, except for in Jack’s case, easily forgivable flaws. Jack’s problem is that he’s perfect and that is not forgivable. Nobody likes a Mr. Sanctimonious Perfect Pants. I mean, he turned in his own father for practicing mal-practice, for Cripe’s sake. That is not normal. No one can identify with that.

All the actors are good-looking too, and most are in the 20-30 age range we all prefer. John Locke is older, but he’s built like a stallion so he gets a pass.

These superficialities hide the fact that the screenwriters gave some of the characters text book quality characterization tics: those ways of speaking that identify a character’s personality. Not all of them have a tic. Take away the national accents from Charlie, Claire, and Sun, and you have pretty standard American.

Jin has a tic: he doesn’t speak English so all his lines are in a Korean-to-pidgin evolution. Tells us right there here’s an emotionally developing man. He is in transition.

Tics come mostly in the form of the way a character delivers his one-liners. Since not every character is conducive to humor, not all get a tic. Most of them just wax philosophical most of the time. It’s a general type of philosophy: acceptance, tolerance, forthrightness. That sort of thing is fairly generic and not useful for ticness.

Kate’s tic is her body. She’s built like a man only with female curves and the show’s creators dressed her in tight clothes to show that off. She appeals to every gender out there and so she’s one of our faves. Other than that, though, she’s too earnest for comedy.

So is Sayid. He has to be. He’s the Iraqi contingent. This show aired in the aftermath of 911 and wouldn’t have made it past the political correctness board if they didn’t make Sayid straight up, intelligent, and earnest. Anti-Muslim fervor is certainly still with us, but the current climate had its birth during the time this show aired. The producers felt a responsibility in spreading a little racial love. So in spite of the fact that Sayid made his living as a torturer and soldier-of-fortune, he is probably the most angelic of all the characters. Also, for trivia buffs, Sayid maps onto the character of the Professor in the old Gilligan’s Island show. In other words he can do anything with a radio transmitter/ceiver. From conducting an ultrasound on an unborn child to contacting the afterlife for tips and good practices, Sayid can do anything except get these people off the dang Island.

If character tics are based on humor, then it goes without saying that Jack doesn’t have any. I think he had one snappy comeback in the whole first season.

John Locke, Hurly, and Sawyer have an excellent ticness rating. Locke is stuck in a Don’t-Tell-Me-What-I-Can’t-Do repeating loop. It’s not that humorous, but it is recurring so it might as well count as a tic.

Hurly is a So-Cal Latino, but, Dude, he talks like a surfer instead of Cheech Marin. Which is odd because Cheech plays his father. Hurley has a way of distilling down the direst of situations to California understatement using terms like “awesome,” “way,” “so”, etc. He’s like an interpreter for the less sensitive members of the audience. Something indescribably horrible happens and Hurly remarks on it via valleygirlspeak. For instance, one time the science teacher, Arzt, blew himself to smithereens in front of Hurley, Jack, Kate, and John Locke. A little while later, Jack had a piece of a red jam-like substance on his back. Hurley noticed it and said, “Dude, you’ve got some, like, Arzt on you.” He was just saying what the audience was thinking. Nobody else in the party mentioned it. They were being polite or something. But Hurley is a cooled out, laid back California dude. He delivered his line in the inoffensive way such people do.

Sawyer is everyone’s favorite, not necessarily because he’s the ultimate bad guy with a heart or because he’s the heir to the Don Johnson legacy (He’s the only one that looks comfortable in a three-day growth of beard. Am I alone here in being relieved when Jack gave himself a shave in episode 21?), but because he’s a red neck he gets all the good lines. You know how those southern boys talk. They mesmerize us. How many of our presidents haven’t lulled a majority of us into joining their constituency with that good ‘ol boy patois?

Like Hurley, Sawyer has an easy way of distilling tragedy down to a one-liner. His best tic is the way he nicknames everybody. Kate is Freckles, Jack is Doc Kevorkian-Spock-Seuss-whatever-fuels-the-conversation; Hurley is Sta-Puf boy; Sayeed is Muhammed, Abdul, or Ahmed. Charlie was a rock star in the real world. Sawyer calls him Menuto Wannabe. Jin is Korean, Sawyer calls him Kato or Miyagi, doubling up on the insult by using the wrong ethnicity. According to the list at Lee Andrew Henderson’s blog, Sawyer once had a bad nickname day and he called Claire “Pregnant Girl” because she was a girl and pregnant. Everyone except the audience hates Sawyer because he’s a selfish, hedonistic, racist, narcissistic, misogynistic, red-neck prick. Unlike Sayid, he actually enjoys torturing people. But we love the snappy comebacks. Besides we can see in his slitted eyes and flaring nostrils, deep down inside he’s hurting and worthy of our pity.

And he loves Kate and we love Kate, so that makes us love Sawyer. Despite the fact that almost every other male character on the Island has a better body, Sawyer gets the most t-shirt off time. I think that’s because he’s got the Allman-Brothers-I-wish-they-could-all-be-Florida-boys hair. He’s a sex symbol because he looks like he’s on his way to Sweet Home Alabama and everyone loves Lynyrd Skynrd and… forget it. It’s obvious I can’t figure it out.

It occurs to me as I analyze the brilliant tics given to the characters on Lost, that these things are not what make good characterizations after all. In fact, I believe it’s only a modern invention created for modern readers. Nowadays we readers are too stupid to get subtext in conversation. We don’t have time to analyze a character’s lines to deduce secret motivation and true personality. We need tics: favorite phrases and gestures that define the person.

In my opinion, great writing doesn’t need all that. Look at George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Can you actually identify differing speech patterns there? The writing, i.e. what they are saying, is what’s important. Their responses to each other give you all the info you need. Read the play once so you know what’s going on, then read it again so you can get what they really mean when they say what they say. It’s in there.

You know who never wrote character tics? Shakespeare. Is Gertrude’s speech much different from Polonius’? Or Romeo’s for that matter? Julius Caeser’s? Puck’s. No, it’s all high-Elizabethan. And who besides Marlowe dares cast aspersions upon the Bard as he spews forth in scribblings and frettings?

It’s the writing that’s good. Not the gimmicks. To be sure there are jokes and one-liners in Shakespeare. Most characters get a few, but there are no differentiations between the type and depth. They are not used for character tics. Well, Hamlet gets more than most, I suppose, but that’s because he’s off his nut and nobody’s funnier than a lunatic.

In my opinion if you see a character tic in a Shakespeare play, it’s more often than not due to the actor’s interpretation. Witness Michael Keeton as the constable/Beetlejuice in Much Ado About Nothing. That’s why all actors want to do Shakespeare at some point: the lines are open to interpretation.

But modern writers cannot allow themselves to write without tics. It’s against the law to give soliloquy or wordy explanation. We must resort to tics to indicate what type of character we’re dealing with. Tics are a shortcut. Tics are your friend.

You do well to take a moment and rewatch Lost. Well, a moment and a month of your life, perhaps, because you won’t watch just one episode. At any rate, while you watch take a lesson and note the tics.

Now if you’ll excuse me, season two is warming up on the DVD player, and I really must go and see what’s in that hatch.

Sue Lange

* Thank you Monty Python for that joke.

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Writing: Identifying the Character Tics in “Lost” — 2 Comments

  1. Marlowe? Did he even have a chance to cast aspersions upon the Bard as he spews forth in scribblings and frettings before he was killed?

    Jonson, now — Ben Jonson could say of Shakespeare, “I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, ‘Would he had blotted a thousand,'”