“The Good Wife” is one of the best dramas to make it to mainstream media in a long time, possibly the best drama ever. This is what I’ve learned about storytelling thanks to the writers of “The Good Wife.”
1. A strong woman who claims her power makes for a gripping character
We pull for Alicia Florrick because she’s a survivor. We love to watch her kick asses. We love to watch her struggle with doing the right thing, and then doing what she’s afraid of anyway because her moral barometer is stronger than her fear. She rises and we rise with her. That’s the kind of protagonist I want to create.
2. The anticipation of a love relationship is better than the reality
Part of my obsession with the show was the tantalizing on-again, off-again love between Kalinda and Cary. (They really do love each other. They really do!) I wish there could have been a bit more reward for loyal watchers (me), a brief moment of them really together. But that dangled carrot sure kept me watching. Same goes for Alicia and Will. We wanted it SO bad! And we never got more than a few episodes of redemption.
3. Yay feminism
Feminism is embracing and celebrating power. It is bargaining and negotiating and not apologizing. Kalinda is one of my favorite characters of all time. She’s complex, fiercely intelligent, and uses sex like a man, without any tired overly sexualized clichés. You’ve got other powerful feminists on the show, of course. Alicia and Diane, obvs. Elsbeth Tascioni—quirky firecracker of a lawyer who does things her own way. Nancy Crozier—the cunning “dumb blonde” who plays the jury like a fiddle. Viola Walsh—Rita Wilson’s sassy, hard-ball character. Strong women everywhere!
4. Characters having to try a lot and fail a lot creates great tension
A character has a goal. They try really hard. They succeed. BORING. Watching someone come at it from all different angles, fail each time, then try again—that’s interesting. That’s life.
5. Bad things happen to good people
I struggle at first with making bad things happen to characters I love. I prefer sunshine and roses. But bad things happen to good people. Will dies. Kalinda skips town. Alicia loses. Gut wrenching and fascinating.
6. Bad guys can be lovable
Or actually, there’s no such thing as a bad guy. There are complex people with complex needs that might not be aligned with the characters you’re rooting for. Colin Sweeney—macabre, glaringly guilty murderer, yet such a delight! Louis Canning-the weasel. David Lee-heartless, selfish, and hilarious. Lemond Bishop—gorgeous, intelligent, soft-spoken, Dad-of-the-year, drug kingpin. They’re the most endearing bad guys you’ve ever met. You kinda like them. They make you laugh. And if you put all judgment aside, you can see where they’re coming from.
7. The third way—always the third way.
This is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from Writer’s Digest in the blog post 5 Moral Dilemmas That Make Characters (& Stories) Better. I fully enjoy spotting #5—Look for the third way—in storytelling everywhere these days. It’s what makes a story special, unique, surprising. We naturally fall for the either/or. And BAM. The third way out makes us gasp.
Will Alicia and Will get back together? Stay broken up forever? NEITHER! WILL DIES! Third way out.
Does Alicia win State’s Attorney? Does she lose? NEITHER! She wins—AND THEN IT GETS TAKEN AWAY! Third way out.
So what might be in store next season?
With Kalinda gone (apparently for good), next season won’t have the same pull for me. But I’ll still watch. The story’s just too good.