Character Lessons from Doctor Who

If I say watching a television show is a study in writing, does doing so then qualify as “work?” (More importantly, can I write off Netflix when I do my taxes?)

I watch Doctor Who for the awesome characters, creative sci-fantasy elements, and off-the-wall stories, all of which have taught me a ton about writing (and often leave me shaking my fist and screaming “MOFFAT!”). But after every episode, I feel more inspired as a writer – and more inspired to mess with my characters. If you’re a Time Lord fan, or a would be-fan, beware: ahead there be spoilers.

1. Give minor characters so much history and personality and life that they could carry their own series.

Most episodes of Doctor Who introduce new characters who are only present for that episode. They could easily be two-dimensional, but they rarely are. As an example, take the series four episode, “Midnight,” which is more psychological horror than your normal whimsical Doctor stuff. Not a single character on the shuttle (aside from the Doctor) would ever appear in another episode, but they were as real and developed as any long-time companion…making their actions and fates near the end of the episode all the more horrifying.

This isn’t to say that every single name you drop in your novel should have a five-page character sheet. In fact, that can be detrimental – “character soup” is something I often have to deal with in edits. But your story will be all the more rich and real if each character has problems and passions that drive their actions, no matter how short their page time.

2. Give everyone a chance to be a hero.

Because good heros (and good characters) are flawed, and they can’t do it all. The Doctor is all kinds of flawed (and if you don’t believe me, you clearly haven’t watched The Waters of Mars). But one of the things I love most about Doctor Who is that so often it’s those minor, one-episode characters I mentioned a few paragraphs up who really save the day, often by some sort of personal sacrifice.

This is particularly valuable in middle grade stories, where the main character is likely very internally focused. Think about Hermione accusing Harry of always trying to be the hero. Sometimes the load must be shared – a great lesson for middle grade characters (and readers). The main character can’t do it alone, and shouldn’t have to.

3. Don’t just be cruel to your characters – be creatively cruel.

Death? So not the worst thing that can happen. Take a look at some of the companions’ fates.

When I think of Captain Jack and the Face of Bo, I want to weep. (Even though Jack’s fate to live a bajillion years and die as a giant head might not be canon, I still just…ack.) Then there’s Rose and her not-quite-Doctor – a strange end to a character arc that managed to be both satisfying and devastating. Martha’s whole year just made me feel bad for her (although admittedly irritated at times). And Amy and Rory – I’m glad they had each other, but if you didn’t tear up at “raggedy man, good-bye” then you have no soul.

But let’s look more closely at Donna, because she’s my favorite companion. She doesn’t die. She doesn’t lose any family members or friends (that she knows of). She’s not physically or mentally harmed in any way. She is, in fact, the exact same person she was before she met the Doctor – a temp from Chiswick in a wedding dress. We last see her happily leaving a church with her new husband and a winning lottery ticket tucked in her cleavage.

Sounds like a happy ending, yeah? But in context it’s a more brutally heartbreaking finale than anything I could’ve possibly imagined for her. For her, Donna. That’s the key – it was an ending that wouldn’t have had the same emotional impact with any other character. It could only work with Donna, with her cutting humor masking that enormous inferiority complex, with her mother who constantly made her feel worthless, with her gradual development into becoming a woman who would quite literally save the world. Maybe it’s not a fate worse than death, but for the Doctor (and the viewers) it was gut-wrenching. And it would have been for Donna, too, if she could only remember.

What are the stakes for your characters? The threat of death is certainly motivating, but try being more creatively cruel. Think of Artemis Fowl in The Time Paradox, forced to deal with the consequences of his own regrettable actions by literally confronting his evil 10-year old self. Pinpoint what really makes your characters afraid and vulnerable, and make them face it head-on.

Any other Whovian writers out there? What lessons have you learned from the Doctor? I’d love to hear them!

Michelle is the author of the upcoming I HEART BAND series (Penguin, Fall 2013), about the thrills and spills, practices and performances, crushes and crises of middle school band geeks. She’s a screenwriter for a Manhattan-based TV/film production company and lives in Queens with her husband (and band mate) and their chocolate lab (who is more of a vocalist). She blogs, tweets, and tumblrs.

Michelle Schusterman
  1. Beverley and Julie — come over to the dark side! 😉

  2. Your post has definitely made me want to watch Dr. Who. I’m going to go to the library and see if I can find it. I’ve often heard about it, and I think I saw a couple episodes long ago, but now I must find out just who is Who!

  3. I’m sorry to say I’ve never watched an episode of Dr. Who but my youngest son was a big fan when we lived in London. That said, I do want to agree with your ‘cruel TO THEM’ point – and that not every ‘devastating’ thing has to be a car chase or a life-or-death scenario. Many times these more subtle ‘cruelties’ are more relate-able and therefore more powerful.
    Thanks for this reminder!

  4. Thanks, Stephenie! I love the Van Gogh episode too, and all of the ones that work in a heavy amount of real history, like The Fires of Pompeii and The Unicorn and the Wasp. (Love & Monsters was one of my least favorites, too.) Plotting Lessons from Doctor Who would be a whole other post! It’s really phenomenal how they tie things together, like you said.

  5. I love that you posted on Dr. Who today. I will have to get my Tardis out when I need my next motivational jolt. The intricate plots that are woven throughout most episodes amazes me. Like a very complicated (and sometimes tangled) Celtic knot, we don’t even see some of the strands until later. It amazes me. I can’t imagine keeping all that organized! My favorite episode is with Van Gogh. Makes me cry every time. It even spurred me to study him last year. I adore almost every episode of Dr. Who (except the one I completely loathe – Love & Monsters.