Steve Rossiter – Australian Literary Review:
You're a full-time TV writer, who has written for shows such as Neighbours and Shortland Street, as well as a fiction writer. What advantages or disadvantages does one form of writing have over the other? Do you consider the differences to be small in comparison to the shared storytelling capacity of TV writing and written fiction?
Ben Marshall: The obvious advantage is that television pays my mortgage. Fiction hasn’t yet coughed up a bean. I haven’t been chasing the fiction dollar, mainly because I’m too busy trying to stay afloat as a freelance writer, a career that means never saying ‘no’ to a gig.
That said, the advantages of writing to spec are that the constraints on what I can and can’t write are clear. Some bridle at being bridled by storylines, arguing perhaps that they limit creative problem-solving. I don’t think this way. Constraints focus my efforts toward creatively problem-solving to achieve the goal, which is bringing out the emotional truth of any given scene to produce emotions in the viewer. Or, in terms more familiar to Gruen Transfer viewers, I keep people from switching channels and missing out on the ad breaks that pay for everything.
The disadvantages are network censorship, the production-line nature of television story creation, time-slot limitations, and the fact that people get huffy if you make fun of minorities, those with different ethnic backgrounds or anyone with a speech defect. Consequently, the advantages of fiction, and being unpublished, are that I can write any feckin’ thing that tickles my fanny at any particular moment. My books are full of racist, sexist and thoroughly un-PC types who run about causing trouble and being offensive on almost every level. Their honesty and openness is refreshing.
Steve: When asked in an interview who your favourite Neighbours characters to write for were, you wrote: "Any well-constructed, clearly defined character – that is, one with strong internal conflict built in from scratch – is a joy to write." What makes a strong internal conflict, which is built into a character, as opposed to a weak internal conflict or one, which is not truly built into the character?
Ben: There are many ways to construct character but basic questions need to be applied to any construct to test them.
Are they interesting enough to watch or read about? If not, why not? What are their drives and what’s driving them? What are the strengths that will enable them to succeed and what are their weaknesses or conflicting drives that will almost certainly ensure they fail?
To hope a protagonist succeeds one must also fear he or she will fail. Before that though, we must care for them. We can only care for them if we empathise with them. To empathise with them we must understand them. To do that we must see ourselves as part of who they are.
So examples of driven characters with inbuilt obstacles might include, off the top of my head, a mother of three lovely children who is immobilised by grief for her dead husband, a lonely GP who is also a misanthrope, a heavily-mortgaged professor of post-modern studies who has early-onset Alzheimer’s, a prosecution lawyer who is also a heroin addict, a bi-polar school teacher, an athlete with an overbearing mother, an introverted young businessman working for his overwhelmingly successful and dictatorial father. (In case you regard parents as external obstacles, btw, they aren’t – our parents are inside us like the alien inside Ripley.)
Poorly constructed characters are uninteresting because they’re superficial – a mere physical description with a few personality traits attached to them – therefore whatever situation they engage in we don’t ‘know’ or understand the character enough to care much about the outcome.
Steve: You've written : "The crucial thing for me with character is knowing exactly what they’d do in any given situation because of who and what they are. Bottom line? Character = story." How would you describe your approach to developing a story in keeping with a character's personality?
Ben: While I definitely do my research, my approach is instinctive and chaotic. (Chaos as a form of order like, say, a drunkard’s walk.) Once the characters begin to emerge from the forest of thoughts, every subsequent action they take further reveals their character. Then, often within the first chapter, it becomes a matter of trying to keep up with the buggers as they race about trying to achieve their aims, while being crippled by internal obstacles and confronted by external issues.
I tend to get a crew together and launch into an interesting situation that I have no idea how to resolve. It’s up to the characters to work within their means to achieve some sort of resolution. I love them, wish them well, provide what help I can, but in the end it’s up to them.
Steve: TV shows and the vast majority of written fiction tend to be written in scenes. What tends to make for a well-crafted scene for TV and/or written fiction?
Ben: Paint a picture, create tension, make the viewer / reader want to know what happens next.
Steve: Your current work in process is set amongst a travelling circus in a future Europe. How has this compared to writing a story in a setting like contemporary suburban Australia or New Zealand?
Ben: Those in my freak show can’t hide the fact that they’re freaks. Those who inhabit suburban Australia or New Zealand are able to pretend otherwise.
Steve: What is one of your favourite novels that you have read in the past year or two and why?
Ben: In terms of what blew me away, I read Pippi Longstocking for the first time when I bought a copy for my wife. Pippi totally rocks. She just does not give a shit and I love her. The Awesome Must-Read Award for character portrayals would go to Homicide by David Simon except it’s not a novel. Otherwise I’d have to say that my rereading of Catch 22 proved, again, that it makes most other novels redundant. I don’t know why I bother.
Steve: What is a TV show from recent years you consider to have well crafted characters/stories and what makes them work so well?
Ben: The Wire. Series 1-5. The particular genius of character creation here comes from the lead writer, David Simon (same guy who wrote Homicide) embedding himself for an entire year in the Philly homicide squad. The Wire I often call ‘television for grown-ups’ because it requires the viewer to think. The characters are revealed slowly, and unfold themselves over a period of many episodes, the complexity growing as we get to know them in the same way we would anyone we spent enough time with. I think I used the word ‘genius’ already. Treme is another good David Simon series.
Steve: What kinds of fiction did you read as a child/teenager and do you have some standout favourites?
Ben: Ray Bradbury, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Alan Garner, Douglas Adams, Joseph Heller, Hunter S. Thompson, Cervantes, Conan Doyle and P.G. Wodehouse.
Steve: If you could bring one fiction author back from the dead for one day, for the sole purpose of chatting about fiction, who would you choose and why?
Ben: It’s a toss-up between asking Lewis Carroll if he was privately aware of the satirical aspects of his Alice books or having a beer with Mark Twain and listening to anything he had to say on the subject. I think I’ll go with the beer.