LET’S STEAL FROM THIS: “Project Runway” and the Thrill of Hyper-Competent Characters

LET’S STEAL FROM THIS: “Project Runway” and the Thrill of Hyper-Competent Characters

LET’S STEAL FROM THIS! is a series of pieces looking at what fiction writers can borrow, craftily, from other sources. I will mostly look at television, movies, and comics, though the occasional literary work may sneak its way in, as will a song or two. LET’S STEAL FROM THIS! finds useful inspiration in unlikely places. NOTE: In all LET’S STEAL FROM THIS! posts, there will be spoilers. Can’t pick it apart if you can’t get specific.

I have an arsenal of phrases I use in my fiction workshops. I’m not on autopilot; rather, I find I respond well to neat summations, and so it seems to go with my students. These are not rules — because I can hear some of you bristling already — but rather suggestions. Things to keep in mind, things I’ve noticed as a writer and reader. Here are four I’ve used recently in multiple workshops:

  • Your story can’t be about the time things all happened the same way. It has to be about THE time SOMETHING DIFFERENT happened.
  • Find out what your characters think they want and what they really want. These are necessarily two different answers.
  • Your lead character(s) should be driven and damaged.
  • Your lead character(s) should either be really great at something or really awful at it. No in-betweens.

This last one struck me last night as I was wondering, as one does, when Project Runway would be coming back on. I still have no idea when, because then I got onto wondering why I like Project Runway so much.

I’m not a fashion person (I do covet nice socks), I think the fashion industry has been horrible for shaping men’s and women’s ideas of what a woman is “supposed” to look like, and I don’t connect well with reality shows. Yet I connect with Runway, and with its old counterpart Top Chef. But why?

I used to think this was because you’re actually witnessing creative processes, which is not something we’re normally privy to. Most bands wouldn’t want cameras there as they wrote and rewrote songs, most real painters wouldn’t let a bunch of strangers watch as they created a work of art. And would you want to watch someone write a novel? (Before you answer that, consider this.)

Clothing and food are different, though. Food is made to be eaten as quickly as possible after creation. Clothing, obviously, is made to be worn. These are our most immediate art forms. So that’s most of why I love those two shows. There are other fashion and food competitions, but these two generally do it right.

But there’s more. I think I love to watch someone being great at something, especially if it’s a thing I could never do myself. Even the worst designers on Project Runway are really good at what they do, and that’s thrilling. I don’t think I’m alone in this. I also think the producers misstep whenever they focus on interpersonal drama; the best, tensest drama on Project Runway always comes from when the designers are working.

I also think this love of excellence extends to our reading lives. One of the many reasons we read is to learn new things. My friend, the author Chris Huntington, used to teach in a prison. He told me the number one choice of reading material among inmates was legal thrillers. Why? Because they wanted to learn as much as they could about the system in which they were locked. But we wouldn’t read legal thrillers, none of us, if the protagonist weren’t either THE BEST lawyer or at least THE BEST-HEARTED lawyer.

This is why the doctor in that medical show you watch isn’t just another doctor, she’s THE BEST doctor. Or she’s the one MOST WILLING TO LOOK FOR NEW SOLUTIONS when everything the old guard favors has failed. Pick your superlative. I don’t like football, I don’t like good old boys, and I don’t like authority figures, but damn if Eric Taylor on Friday Night Lights isn’t thrilling to watch when he works. Why? Because he’s great at being a coach.

This subject also came up at workshop the other night. A student who’s writing a thriller submitted a chase scene from Greg Iles’ novel The Quiet Game, and we looked at it to figure out what made it work. The chase scene — two guys jump into a rushing river in an inflatable kayak to escape a group of gunmen — was well-written and beautifully paced. But there was something else beneath it, something from a character level, that cemented all of it for me. I realized it was that the two characters were sharing expertise in order to make their getaway.

The first guy, an older agent, was the one who suggested using the river and the kayak in the first place, even (helpfully) laying out the two points in their journey where they would encounter steep drops. Meaning: if we don’t do these exactly right, we’re dead. Well, spoiler alert, one of the drops does not go right. The gunmen have already arrived at that point and are waiting to pick off our heroes as they freefall in their kayak into a basin.

But aha, here’s the second guy‘s expertise kicks in. He’s only been rafting once before in his life, but on that trip he heard the instructors saying they’d been certified only after taking a set of rapids wearing just a life vest — no vessel. So the second guy flips them out of the kayak and grabs onto a rock to let the boat go ahead of them. Sure enough, the gunmen spot the kayak and shoot it to hell — which would not have gone well for its passengers.

The second guy’s expertise isn’t rafting, and it isn’t knowledge. It’s his ability to make creative solutions for impossible problems, something I’m guessing he’s demonstrated elsewhere in the book. (My student says this is true.) If he’d been a regular cop with no special qualities and then he’d suddenly had this rafting-instructor epiphany in the heat of the action, we’d never buy it. But because already we know this person to be hyper-competent, it doesn’t feel like a cheat. So by making your character exceptional at something, it not only makes them more interesting for the reader, it can actually help your story.

Do they have to be exceptional? No. Someone who’s good but striving to be great is interesting, too, and it’s a scenario that comes with its own plot resolution — think of the doctor/lawyer/teacher character who wants to be great, but won’t truly achieve what she wants until she _______ — and here you fill in the blank: Learns to be a better listener, learns to think of other people, lets go of her grief.

Someone who’s awful at what they do is another kind of gold. The main characters in Sam Lipsyte’s novels Home Land and The Ask are pretty spectacular failures, and it’s still magnetic for the reader. Why? Because the author — and by extension, the reader — is forced to become an expert in failure. Finding out exactly how bad someone is at what they do is as weirdly thrilling as finding out how great someone else is. Plus, it’s funny, at least until you begin to recognize too much of yourself in it.

So what doesn’t work? Characters who are just kinda okay at what they do, and have no real drive to get better at it. This was the meat of an awful lot of indie films in the ’90s, and it’s something I’ve seen year after year in fiction workshops, first as a student and later as a teacher. I’m not sure why so many people want to write about lethargy or ruts or ennui, but damn, a lot of them do. (This is where “write what you know” maybe needs a little more context.) I’ll tell you this: no one ever wants to read about those things. They just don’t. Even if you’re personally allergic to striving or ambition — and if you’re a writer, these are definite possibilities — your characters can’t be. They simply can’t.

So there. Watch some Project Runway. Tell me there isn’t a whole novel in Jeffrey Sebelia, the Season 3 contestant and recovering heroin addict who wouldn’t stop being a brutal, prickly bastard regardless of whether he was an underdog or sailing through the finals. Or Season 8’s Gretchen Jones, who was so convinced of (and vocal about) her own genius that it threatened to derail her, and surely soured her eventual victory for her as much as it did for the viewers.

Driven and damaged and either great or impressively incompetent at what they do: this is never a bad place to start.



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