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Monday, April 17

Character Lessons From "Malcolm in the Middle"

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

One of the things I like about Netflix is the ability to watch shows I missed when they were on the air. One such show is Malcolm in the Middle, and my husband and I recently finished watching the entire series. It’s a decade old at this point, so for those who aren’t familiar with it, Malcolm in the Middle is a quirky sitcom that ran from 2000-2006, telling the over-the-top tales of “A gifted young teen who tries to survive life with his dimwitted, dysfunctional family.” (Their description, not mine). Malcolm is the middle child (more of less) in a family of four boys, a genius who would much rather be normal and fit in with his peers.

It has amazing characters, and watching this series a few episodes a day for months makes the growth and development of these characters stand out. You can see how they turn from one-trick stereotype people (the bully, the screw-up, the weird kid, the goofball) to multi-layered and compelling characters. There are quite a few things that we writers can benefit from—both good and bad.

1. The main character doesn’t grow.

This was a surprise to me, since you’d expect the main character to have the most growth. But Malcolm started out as a self-absorbed genius who wanted to fit in and stayed a self-absorbed genius who wanted to fit in. He might have developed a little over seven seasons, but we never really learned much more about him than what we do the first season. He also never does anything different, and by the end, he’s the least interesting or likable character on the show.

What we can learn from this: Series characters don’t always grow, or grow very little, because if they grow too much, it can ruin the entire series. But as Malcolm shows, not growing enough (especially if the other characters are growing), can hurt the protagonist and turn them into a character readers no longer care about. If the other characters in a series grow, make sure the protagonist does, too.

The exception: Some series have characters who don’t change at all, but neither does anyone else in the series, and the goal isn’t to show an emotional growth—such as Lee Child’s Jack Reacher or James Bond. If the series is more about the plot than the people, a lack of growth is more common and acceptable.

(Here’s more on why character growth matters)

2. Everyone is their own worst enemy.

This is what I truly loved about the show. These characters always had a goal and things they wanted to accomplish, and most of the conflicts came from their own flaws getting in their way. It’s a brilliant study of Person versus Self conflict, really. For example:

Francis: The oldest child sent off to military school for being out of control. He’s actually a smart guy with great leadership skills, but he blames everything bad in his life on his mother, and constantly undermines his own success to prove her wrong.

Reese: Child #2, the dumb bully who thinks everything can be solved through violence—and he’s gleeful about that. He has a sensitive side and the ability to be a good person, but he has no conscience and no interest in changing his ways—even when those ways are clearly keeping him from what he wants.

Malcolm: The self-absorbed genius who wants to be liked and fit in, but who can’t stop showing off that he’s smarter than everyone else and knows what to do—even when he’s wrong.

Dewey: The youngest child, who is a sweet kid who’s constantly overlooked and under appreciated. Even though he knows playing by his brothers’ rules will only lead to trouble, he can’t help doing it to gain a little control in his life—and get a little revenge from time to time.

Hal: The father who’s just as bad as any of the kids. While lovable and a hopeless romantic, he takes everything too far and approaches most problems with a ten-year-old’s sensibility. He never grew up, and that's the root of most of his troubles.

Lois: The mother, who holds the entire family together. She’s the moral center of the show, but her black and white view of the world makes her uncompromising when a little give and take would make her life so much easier.

A large percentage of the show’s conflicts stem from these characters being who they are and messing up what they want. Sometimes outside forces cause it, but in the end, it’s usually their own flaws that do them in. It’s a wonderful study of how to create deeply flawed, yet likable characters.

What we can learn from this: Characters shouldn’t be perfect, and the ones with flaws who get in their own way and mess up are often much more interesting than the ones who never make mistakes. It’s the flaws that make us care, and the reason we enjoy hanging out with them.

(Here’s more on a Person versus Self conflict)

3. All the characters have layers (except Malcolm).

In season one, these characters were more stereotype than people, but as the show developed, they became layered individuals. Some grew more than others, but they all showed sides that defied the stereotype at some point. What’s really fun, is that although the show is about Malcolm being the genius, all the kids are geniuses in their own way. For example:

Francis: The “bad boy screw up” who drops out of school to prove his mother is a bad mom goes from odd job to odd job, gets married, winds up running a Dude ranch, and eventually becomes the solid, good husband his parents always wanted him to be. Little by little we see that all those lectures and arguments with Mom did sink in and he knows how to be responsible and work with people. Francis is a genius when it comes to working with (and manipulating, let's be honest) people.

Reese: The "bully" shows he can do amazing things with a little direction and supervision. He discovers he’s an amazing chef, a great dancer, an excellent solider, and a good person if he has the right people surrounding him to provide guidance. Reese is a genius at taking direction (and cooking).

Dewey: From "weird kid" to musical prodigy, Dewey is the most fun to watch because you never know what this guy will do. He’s the most unpredictable, with the soul of a poet and the ability to mastermind like an evil genius. Dewey is a genius of creativity, and he applies that in all sorts of entertaining ways.

What we can learn from this: All characters have strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. The more well-rounded we make a character, the more compelling and unpredictable that character is likely to be. The unexpected trait or skill can make an otherwise blah character fascinating, because it’s the last thing readers expect.

(Here’s more on developing characters arcs)

Although Malcolm in the Middle had seven seasons to develop its characters, we can learn from what they did and apply some of those tricks to our own writing. Next time you’re creating or revising a character, think about the flaws that might hinder that character, or the unexpected skills or traits they might have. Look for ways to add a few extra layers and give them places to grow.

Have you seen Malcolm in the Middle? What did you think? What other shows (or books) have you seen that had well-done characters?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. I love this show! One of my favorite things about it is the way it uses and subverts the family sitcom trope of naggy wife vs dopey dad. Lois does nag, and Hal is dopey, but they aren't pitted against each other. They're passionate for one another, support each other's goals, and join forces against the kids instead. They're my favorite characters in the show.

    1. Me too. The Lois/Hal romance is so much fun. And even when they do fight, you see how they work it out and find common ground again out of love.

  2. Leverage is a perfect example. (Timothy Hutton, Gina Bellman, Christian Kane, etc) Through five seasons a group of five individuals grow into a family. Watch it, and pay attention to Beth Riesgraf's Parker; her character arc is a masterpiece.

    1. LOVE Parker. She was my favorite part of that show. I haven't seen it in ages. It might be time to see if it's on Netflix and re-watch it :)

  3. I nominate "The Middle" as well. It's very much like Malcolm, though a bit less over the top. In the scifi realm, the show "Farscape" also showcased character development from beginning to end, in spite of being kind of overall goofy (it had 2 Jim Henson animatronic puppets a main characters).