What Writers Can Learn from Parenthood: Character Development

All copyrights held by NBC.

Writers can learn a lot from Parenthood. Not actual parenthood, mind you, although I’m sure that also provides opportunities for creative growth. But for now, I’m talking about the TV show Parenthood.

Parenthood follows the Braverman family as they encounter the joys and tragedies of life, together and apart. Sounds boring, right? That’s what I thought at first, too.

Boy, was I wrong.

My husband and I started Parenthood last summer, just after I started my new job. Several of our friends recommended it to us, so we finally caved. After a few month-long hiatuses, we finally finished it this past June. The reason we had to take so many breaks from watching this show acts as the strongest evidence for its status as creative masterpiece.

We got too involved, too invested. We (okay, okay, I) couldn’t get through a single episode without ugly crying. The characters, with all their various issues and mistakes and complications, became a part of our lives.

So how can we novelists do this? What can we learn from the creators and writers of a television show to make the characters in our novels stand out?

Examples given below may include spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.

Make Your Characters Matter

The show revolves around the rather large Braverman clan. Here’s a brief snapshot of the family tree.

Zeek and his wife Camille serve as the heads of this family, presiding over the lives of their grown children, sometimes as welcome counselors, sometimes and unwelcome meddlers.

Adam is the eldest Braverman son. He and his wife Kristina have a teenage daughter, Haddie; a young son, Max; and a surprise baby, Nora.

Sarah is the eldest daughter. She and her ex-husband, Seth, have two teenagers, Amber and Drew Holt. Later in the show, Amber gives birth to a son, whom she names after Grandpa Zeek.

Crosby is the youngest son and generally regarded as the black sheep of the family. His one-time fling, Jasmine Trussell, introduces them to their son Jabbar when the boy is five — until then, he had no idea he was a father. Later, the two marry and have another child, daughter Aida.

Julia is the baby of the family. She and her husband Joel Graham have one biological daughter, Sydney. After struggling with infertility, they later adopt Victor, who is one year older than Sydney.

That’s a lot of characters, right? Twenty, by my count. And the crazy thing is that, with the exception of the youngest children, every single member of this family has a complete story arc. They’re all protagonists. Every single one of them.

Zeek learns to accept his own mortality and the ability of the family to carry on without him, while Camille learns what it means to love selflessly. Adam and Kristina both learn to let go — Adam, in the realm of finances and career goals, and Kristina, in her approach to parenting their autistic son. Sarah learns how to love herself and others, rather than getting hung up on her past failures. Crosby learns to tone down his rock-and-roll lifestyle and commit to Jasmine, who simultaneously learns how to back off and let her husband assume responsibility. Joel and Julia learn how to communicate and respect one another. And as the original five grandchildren age, they also assume the role of protagonist. With the exception of Haddie, who stops being a regular character when she leaves for Cornell in season four, they all have evocative, transformative storylines as well.

How novelists can use this:

Unless you’re Tolstoy, having so many major characters might be problematic, but there’s still something novelists can learn from the Parenthood model. Here’s the takeaway:

If you write a character into being, make sure they exist for a reason.

Pretend that for each character you create, you have to pay a $50 fine. With that in mind, do you really need to lend screen time to your protagonist’s five neighbors and their families? Does he or she really need to have three roommates, or could the story move on just the same with one?

Knock the number of these background characters down a little, instead focusing on giving each fictional personal an identity beyond their usefulness or hindrance to your protagonist. Almost anyone can make a cup of tea or be the vengeful ex currently keying your car, under the right circumstances. You might as well make the person who does these things interesting and complex in their own right, even if you’re the only person who ever knows the difference.

Make Your Characters Dynamic

As mentioned before, each of the Bravermans undergoes a massive transformation between series premiere and finale. Each of them, while maintaining their unique identities and personalities, have strengthened the way they handled or coped with their various struggles and issues. Zeek goes from being a hubristic, bombastic man intent on running the lives of his children forever to humbly admitting his flaws and accepting the limitations of his weakening, aging body. Camille goes from whimsical selfishness to sacrificing everything she has to care for her family.

Major characters need to be dynamic during the course of any story. Simply put: they need to change. Static characters, or those who remain the same throughout the story, have their place, but only as juxtaposition with dynamic characters. If you want readers to fall in love with the people you’ve created, write them as a river — ever moving and changing within the bounds of a strong, ever-present identity. Instead of coddling them and treating them to a perfect life, put your characters through a fire of refinement to burn off all those nasty imperfections.

They do have imperfections, right? Because that’s important.

Make Your Characters Flawed

Perfection is boring. Maybe that’s why Parenthood is so interesting. All the Bravermans have a list of flaws a mile long — Zeek is a blowhard, Camille a narcissist, Adam a control freak, Kristina a helicopter mom, Sarah a flake, Julia self-centered, Joel a coward, Crosby childish, Jasmine a nag . . . and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

I hated every character on this show at some point or another. But not as much as I loved them.

That’s the real brilliance of Parenthood. Because it’s a show about family, and at the end of the day, isn’t that what being in a family is like? It’s irritating and infuriating each other, but still showing love and grace when we need it the most. The writers of this show replicated this experience and injected the associated emotions into a television show, making viewers feel for these characters — if for only forty minutes at a time — what they felt for their own siblings and parents and nephews and cousin and uncles.

That’s kind of amazing.

Writers of fiction can replicate this brilliant accomplishment by creating characters who are equally lovable and flawed. Readers should be infuriated by characters’ mistakes, not because they hate them but because they care.

Real people aren’t all good or all bad. We’re all a mixture of both. That’s what makes us broken and beautiful. And that’s how our characters should be, too.