Lessons From The Wire: Character Development and Contrast

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Omar Little

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I’ve been catching up on The Wire, a crime drama which ran on HBO for five seasons.  It’s one of those special shows that you must watch from the beginning in order to appreciate.

A number of critics have hailed it as “the best show ever.”  After watching the first three seasons, I’m inclined to agree.  The Wire is spellbinding.  As masterfully written by series creator David Simon, the story unfolds as if it were an epic novel, not a television show.  Writers from all genres and mediums can learn something from studying this series, for The Wire is storytelling at its finest.

One of factors that makes this show stand out is the presence of vivid, compelling characters.  David Simon, who also created Homicide: Life on the Street, is a master of character development, and this is evident in The Wire.  There are two conflicting sides to each major character, often in direct opposition to one another.

The Battle Within

Each of the major players in The Wire is brought to life through the use of contrast.  As in real life, no one is an embodiment of good or evil.  Human beings are more complicated than that.  We each have shades of darkness and light warring within us.  We are beings who exist in a state of internal conflict.

By depicting this contrast in the lives of his protagonists, David Simon makes them seem far more real – and interesting.  A one dimensional archetype, the kind of which populates many fantasy novels, is inherently boring.  In the world of The Wire, only the dead are boring.

A Rogue’s Gallery

Perhaps the show’s most striking character is Omar, the legendary Stickup Boy.  This man makes his living by robbing the drug dealers, conducting raids on their armed safe houses.  He’s a hard-nosed killer with no fear of death.  He’s the embodiment of badass.

But that’s only one side of him.  In his personal life, Omar is a sensitive gay man who mourns the death of his lover. And he isn’t on the “down-low.” Omar is openly, proudly gay. He turns stereotypes upside down.

Another memorable character is Detective Jimmy McNulty, who is the closest thing to a central “hero” on the show.  McNulty is the outspoken voice of morality.  He ceaselessly decries the compromise and corruption which plague Baltimore’s police force. In some ways he mirrors an Old Testament prophet, ever reminding his superiors of the higher obligation to justice.

But like Omar, McNulty has another side.  While remaining the “fly in the ointment,” decrying the city’s corruption, McNulty also develops a reputation as a serial adulterer and alcoholic. His vices cause major repercussions in his familial and professional relationships.

Character Development through Internal Conflict

Both of these characters are realized through the stark contrasts that define them. Of course, there are other examples of this in the series. There’s Stringer Bell, the murderous drug lord who studies economic theory and gives back to the community.  And who can forget Brother Mouzone, the feared drug enforcer who reads political magazines and is devoutly religious.  We could go on.

Each character in The Wire is marked by contrast, and that makes for a far more colorful story. One of the great truths of writing is that conflict is the essence of drama. When conflict exists within the characters themselves, it heightens the drama exponentially. This is a lesson that can be applied to any medium of storytelling.

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Antonio del Drago

Antonio del Drago is a writer, philosopher and professor. His latest book, The Mythic Guide to Characters: Writing Characters Who Enchant and Inspire, is now available.

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5 comments
Cathal
Cathal

What does Stringer Bell give back to the community?

CicadaGrrl
CicadaGrrl

I actually never got into The Wire.  I admire the use of contrasts, but I would hate to take it just to contrast.  The idea that we all have "light" or "dark" sides is true, but I generally think we are varied continuums.  To sound annoying, we are white light.  Put a prism in front of us and you can see all the colors that we are made up of.  Characters go the same way.  They aren't black added to white.  They are all sorts of interlocked facets and colors that make sense best when added up and used in accordant complications.  A character's life should create not only contrasts, but reasons why all those contrasts make sense added up if you knew the whole life story.

Legerdemain
Legerdemain

Good use of The Wire to highlight several important aspects of Character Development, Hoorah!

Haroon
Haroon

Speaking of HBO shows, Big Love's last two seasons have been disappointing. It went from believable plots in the initial seasons, to crazy rescue missions and shoot outs in season 4. At least The Wire ended with dignity . . .

Antonio del Drago
Antonio del Drago

Hey Haroon, I've never actually watched an entire episode of Big Love. What I did see looked interesting. I'm sorry to hear that it went so far down hill.

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