I can barely see the screen as I type this because I am sobbing. I am gasping for breath and sobbing…about fictional characters. I am crying because they were so deeply real to me. I have just finished watching a BBC series which was on earlier this year. Broken, starring Sean Bean and written by Jimmy McGovern. (Yes, I know I am totally late to the party). I hadn’t even heard of Jimmy McGovern before watching this. Now I want to meet him and give him a massive hug.
If you asked me to choose between books and TV I’d always pick books. I usually watch TV when I’m tired and just want something to numb my brain. I’m definitely not a TV ‘fan’, but a family member recommended I watch Broken. We normally have similar taste in telly (soppy period dramas and the like) so I thought I’d give it a whirl. I had no idea what I was in for.
As someone who is learning how to tell stories, Broken is an absolute masterclass in characterisation. I feel I’ve learnt more about creating characters from watching this six-part series, that I have from all the writing textbooks I’ve read, workshops I’ve attended and podcasts I’ve listened to. Or perhaps it has crystalised everything I’ve learnt so far.
The main character in the series is Fr. Michael Kerrigan, played by Sean Bean. He is a middle aged, Catholic priest who is a well known face in his community, a deprived North West suburb. He never hesitates to help people who are suffering for whatever reason. It soon becomes clear why Michael makes the decisions he does and what he is striving for. He’s had an extremely troubled childhood, having been abused by people he trusted, and we see how his past is still so raw and current for him. He is traumatised by bad things that have been done to him and feels deep guilt for bad things he has done to others. From what I’ve read about writing fiction, the key to creating a believable story and a three dimensional character is to ensure that they are striving for something. I think ultimately, Fr. Michael just wants to be a good man but he is racked with guilt and shame.
“Words are rungs on an emotional ladder.” – Jimmy McGovern
Throughout the six episodes we also meet a number of parishioners who Michael is helping in his role as a priest and we see how much he becomes intertwined with their stories. He spends most of his energy and spare time helping others. He takes on other people’s suffering as well as struggling to deal with his own. As a viewer, these were not just side characters to help move the narrative along. Each one of them was completely three dimensional too, each experiencing a painful dilemma and each striving for their own goals. As in any good story, every character had conflict in their life and was trying to overcome barriers to get to a resolution. From the mother who does the unthinkable to keep food on the table to feed her family to the police officer completely torn between telling the truth and providing for his family, to the healthy, middle class woman who has the perfect life on paper but who has been destroyed by a gambling addiction. I was completely invested in each of these characters, which is why I found myself in tears during every episode.
In an interview, Jimmy McGovern, said he cries when he’s writing his scripts. This doesn’t surprise me at all and has really made me think hard about my own work. After all, I am the first reader and if I don’t feel anything, how can I expect another reader to?
As fiction writers, there’s so much we can learn from studying television and film as well as books. Robert McKee, author of Story, is the absolute expert in this area. I’d love to go to one of his seminars one day. In the meantime, I’m still basking in the brilliance of this series. Now all I need to do is harness this inspiration, inject it into my own work and remember this from Jimmy McGovern -“Words are rungs on an emotional ladder.”