Mining Reality Shows for Characters

I’m a reality show junkie, although I draw the line at Big Brother. My favorite is Amazing Race. I also like Survivor, Top Chef, Project Runway, and America’s Next Top Model (ANTP). Mostly I enjoy seeing exotic locations, or in the case of the fashion shows, I like the creativity and the photo shoots. But what I’ve discovered after watching a number of these shows is that a lot of the contestants fall into fairly clear stereotypes. That may be the intention of the producers who pick the contestants. People like to put things, or in this case people, into categories. It’s a way of organizing a bunch of new material at once and when you are presented with 12 contestants, you need a way to remember who is who.

There is the super bitch, or the narcissus if it’s a man. Their view of the world and their position in it just blows my mind. I always wonder what they think when they watch themselves on these shows. Do they see themselves as the rest of us do or do they maintain their delusion of superiority?

Next there are the manipulators. The Machiavellians. I am truly in awe of their ability to get other people to do what they want. I would be a lamb to the slaughter in their hands. Survivor is a great show for watching them at work. Being athletic and nice is not the way to win that game. You really do have to outwit your opponents. But, on the other hand, you can’t treat the other contestants with the contempt you may feel for their gullibility. The best players are the ones who can manipulate without their victims realizing what’s going on.

Unfortunately there are also abusers, people who blame everyone else except themselves for their failures. Then there are the drama queens who regularly have a melt-down. They are the center of the emotional universe. If you want drama queens watch Project Runway. There are more drama queens on that show than on all of the others combined. And finally there are the brains. They are people who know things, who call upon their wealth of knowledge to give them an edge. They are different from the manipulators who are focused on getting other people to do what they want. Instead, they are focused on the challenge and how they can use their knowledge to win it. For instance, on Survivor, the team had to open a treasure chest. All the big brawny guys picked it up and threw it down, hit it with rocks, and basically failed to do much more than inflict a few scratches. Up walks an older man (in his fifties) who is about half their weight—I think he was a science teacher. He picks up the chest and throws it down on one of it’s corners. It immediately splits open, because he knows the corner is it’s weakest point. You gotta love it when that happens. Interestingly enough, these people usually don’t win. People eventually realize their knowledge makes them more of a threat than someone with muscles and they vote them off.

Beyond these broad categories are the rest of the contestants who are filler. I see them as the extras, doomed to be eliminated fairly early because there is nothing unique about them that gives them an advantage.

If you want to mine the reality shows for characters, though, you have to look beyond the stereotype. For instance, on an episode of ANTP, the girl who was eliminated was the super bitch. She was so obviously the high school cheerleader-prom-queen-queen-bee who thought she would continue being that forever that she couldn’t make that step beyond her insulated world to see how little she mattered to the big world. She couldn’t understand why she wasn’t always the winner of every challenge. She didn’t realize she had to do more than simply show up to be given everything she wanted. It started me thinking about how she was going to handle the rest of her life. For a potential story, what would it be like for a character who had everything and then lost their status? Do their past victims rejoice in their downfall? Do they continue in the belief the world owes them everything? Can they adapt? I know this is a plot that’s been done before, but you can also say that about every plot. It’s how you handle the details. What would it be like to be on a reality show, have all of your flaws exposed, lose the show, and then have to return home? She doesn’t have to lose her money, or change schools, etc. The only thing that has changed is that she has exposed her one-dimensional character to the rest of the world. And since she has been exposed to a world where she isn’t the queen bee, does that affect how she sees her home? Can she slip back into her old role and find it satisfying? Will other people let her do that? I think it could be an interesting YA novel.

How about a plot where someone who is an expert at manipulating people is exposed as the master behind an incident where someone was hurt emotionally or physically? This character manipulated the players simply because it was easy to do. He gets off on being a puppet master. But when someone is truly hurt, does that change them? Can they learn empathy?

How about the drama queen? How could you use them in a plot?

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