Shonda Rhimes: Compassion For Characters

For more than a month, I walked the dog with Shonda Rhimes. Ms. Rhimes’ MasterClass is one of the longer and, in my opinion, more informative courses for writers on the podcast service. She demystifies breaking into television, discusses writing in general and also gets specific with the structure of various types of television episodes. She’s also has an amazing work-ethic, approach to her craft, and incredible talent. Plus, she’s funny.

Shonda Rhimes

Of course, none of this will be news to anyone who has ever watched one of Ms. Rhimes many successful shows: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, Private Practice, etc.

There were so many parts of this course that stuck with me. One of my favorites, however, was the importance of writers having empathy for all their characters–including the villains.

Ms. Rhimes said that some of the biggest arguments she would get into in the writers’ room was when a person suggested a storyline because, say, Papa Pope (the protagonist’s father in Scandal) was a villain and kills people. She would say that he was not just a villain and didn’t do bad things, just because. He does things out of love for his daughter, and a want to control her so that his child makes the decisions he believes will work best. He isn’t bad or ruthless just because and, if anyone writes him that way, they will essentially destroy him for the viewer.

Villains, she explained, are driven by something that one can empathize with. Maybe it’s that they love their country above individual people and so are willing to sacrifice people for the state. Maybe it’s that they feel so passionately about their loved ones that it drives them to distraction and so they make mistakes. Maybe they act emotionally, rather than rationally.

Writers ruin shows, she said, by failing to have empathy for ALL their characters.

The same can be said for all stories. It was a good reminder.

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