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Binge-Worthy Characters in Books and on the Screen


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I may not remember the specific details of a novel or show—the clue that led to unmasking the murderer, for example—but I always remember how I felt about the characters. How I marveled at Sherlock’s genius and self-destructive eccentricity. How Luther drew me into his darkness and Villanelle mesmerized me with her dazzling psychopathy. What was it about these characters that kept me coming back for more?

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After a year and a half of pandemic life, I look forward to my fictional friends at the end of the day. But no matter how captivated I am by their spiraling descent, sleuthing adventures, or comical escapades, when the series ends, the plot slips from my mind. I couldn’t tell you what happened in Season 6, Episode 24 of NCIS, but I can easily recall Gibbs’ quiet strength, DiNozzo’s clownish heart-of-gold, Ziva’s wry humor, and Abby Sciuto’s quirky charms. The plots were fun, but I tuned in, week after week, to hang with the cast.

I wanted to inspire this same feeling of camaraderie with my Chinese-Norwegian modern-day ninja protagonist, Lily Wong, and the unusual family and friends that surround her. I wanted readers to care about her and them enough to read book after book.

What do binge-worthy characters have in common? This inquiring writer wants to know.

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Authentic and Real

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No matter how outlandish, comedic, or satirical, the stickiest characters feel real enough to invite into our homes, fight in the streets, or scream at in frustration. Their backstories run deep with family histories, cultures, and secrets we’re dying to discover. They surprise us with conflicting tendencies and incongruent personality traits that are as multi-layered as our own. Their dialogue sounds natural, and their actions and skills feel genuine and true.

The authors who create them sometimes draw from their own career experience like Kathy Reichs or from their personal cultural experience like Attica Locke and Naomi Hirahara. Some authors—like Isabella Maldonado with her Detective Cruz and Agent Guerrera series and me with my Lily Wong mystery thrillers—draw from both. Regardless of the source, binge-worthy characters feel real because they are authentic and multidimensional.

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Fascinating and Unique

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Ever notice how generic people, whether fictional or real, fade from our memory the moment they’re out of sight? It’s like trying to spot a “thirty-something blonde” in a shopping mall, we need a clearer description to pick them out from the crowd.

An itchy-fingered, hotter than hell U.S. marshal in Kentucky hooks us in as does a mild-mannered serial-killer mortician with a moral code, a neurotic Asian-Brit former MI6 agent who becomes erotically fascinated by the female assassin she’s hunting, or a self-made queer black Detroit private eye. Raylan Givens, Dexter Morgan, Eve Polastri, and Charlie Mack are characters that invite us to binge and refuse to be forgotten. We binge on their books and shows because they are fascinating and unique.

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Relatable

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No matter how different we are, everyone shares the same core emotions and experiences. Everyone knows how it feels to be frustrated, driven, resentful, or obsessed. We’ve all made mistakes that have led us down paths we wished we hadn’t walked. We’ve all yearned for love and struggled with relationships. We understand grief and joy and the need to belong as keenly as we empathize with injustice and despair.

While the specific qualities and situations of a character may differ greatly from our own, the commonalities bind us together. We can empathize with Dave Robicheaux’s demons without ever having gone to war. And while I hope we will never torture, slice, and dump our victims into the ocean like Dexter or covet a person’s life and wealth to the deadly extreme of Tom Ripley, we can relate to the emotions that drive them to those deeds.

The desire to right a wrong or exact justice on those who commit evil resonates with everyone, as does the need to be accepted and loved. We don’t need a Dark Passenger to relate to dark compulsions or give into envy to know how it can tear us up inside. Binge-worthy characters expand our perception of ourselves and the world.

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Clearly Defined Voice

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Whether we agree with them or not, characters who make the greatest impact have strong opinions and a distinctive voice. Everything they say, think, or describe sounds undeniably like them. Read the first chapter from any Tracy Clark Chicago mystery and you’ll immediately lock into Cass Raines’ attitude and personality. Read the opening of Matt Coyle’s Rick Cahill series and you will never mistake the book for a Lily Wong thriller.

Writing in a first-person (or close-third) point of view infuses a book or a chapter with a character’s unique voice and perspective that supersedes the author’s. It’s not just in the dialogue. Every line of prose, intensifies the impression. Binge-worthy characters have a clear point of view.

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Interact with Interesting and Well-Developed Characters

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The quickest way to kill a series is to surround a well-developed authentic protagonist with a paper family, generic friends, and clichéd adversaries. If “no man is an island,” then no character stands alone. Even an isolated hero like Jack Reacher needs believable people both to fight and protect.

Unlike a movie or a standalone novel, a binge-worthy series needs both far-reaching and episodic arcs. It’s not enough to resolve the relationships in a particular book, episode, or season, we want to know what happens beyond. Will Castle ever marry Beckett? Will Mary Byrde corrupt every member of his family? Will Villanelle actually kill Eve? I tune in for the premise and mystery but I stay for the relationships. Binge-worthy characters interact with a binge-worthy cast.

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Addicting

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All of these qualities suck me into a series, book after book or season after season. I could write more about the addictive qualities of binge-worthy characters, but Beauregard “Bug” Montage is calling me back to Razorblade Tears. I already know he’ll stick in mind. Just as I know I’ll preorder the third book as soon as it goes live. And if Hollywood comes through, I’ll have a new television series on which to binge.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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