For several years, me and Mike Resnick went back and forth about premise versus character. I insisted a science fiction story required a valid science premise well-integrated into the story. He insisted the characters were the only story elements that truly mattered.
Then one day I heard myself talking to Analog writer Karl Bunker about his “This Quiet Dust” story. Me and Bunker happen to both be on the Critters Workshop, so I was able to read an earlier version. The version that Analog published was significantly different from the draft Bunker had submitted to Critters. I told Bunker, “The first version is character oriented, the second is premise oriented. I’ll take character oriented version over the premise oriented version.” When I saw these words come out of my keyboard, I knew Resnick had finally won.
But this was only one of a string of Resnick inspired epiphanies, so many I’ve lost count.
A few summers ago, I put Resnick's “Birthright” on hold to binge watch 4 seasons of a "The Good Wife. I’ve never met a legal drama I didn’t watch, but I’ve never binge watched any of them, much less 92 episodes over a period of 3 weeks.
When I thought about why I devoted so much of my valuable time to watching one television show, why I couldn’t stop watching, why I wouldn’t even be tempted to binge watch, indeed, even watch, 99% of other television shows, I realized it was because the characters were so compelling. Every one of them – main, recurring, and cameo – was fascinating.
Then they got a new showrunner or a new script team or lost their vision or something. After the fifth season, the story arcs became headline oriented, the scenes became antic oriented, and most importantly, the characters existed to serve the plot instead of vice versa. The show became a shell of its earlier self. I was on the verge of abandoning it when the network put it out of its misery.
Several months ago, I binge watched the first season of Billions, another legal drama. And for the same reason. There wasn’t even one character I didn’t thoroughly savor exploring. Comparing the two shows, I realized one was character development oriented and the other was character interaction oriented.
I have a longstanding policy of watching at least the pilot of every new speculative fiction television show. But without compelling characters, there is no chance I'm going to binge watch, no matter impressive the light show, no matter how intriguing the lab lingo, no matter crisp the banter, no matter how sophisticated the plots/arcs.
I never got back “Birthright,” but I did have yet another epiphany or two or three. I think it was worth the tradeoff.