What Penny Dreadful Teaches Us About Writing Complex Characters

You may recall me writing a blog post on “Evil” Characters and now I will add another to the collection of TV-inspired character tips. I’ll start with Penny Dreadful since I’m positively obsessed with the show. I mean, it combines Eva Green, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Dracula by Bram Stoker, and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, places them in Victorian London, and has them all interact together.

The first season of the show had beautiful character portraits that had the tagline: “there is some thing within us all.” The whole concept of the show, apart from its literary roots, is that humans are as monstrous, if not more so, than the monsters we all know from books, plays, movies, and TV. And, as you watch the show, you’ll very quickly learn that while there are some “villains” and maybe one or two “heroes,” almost everyone is an anti-hero with enough sins to paint the walls of Sir Malcolm Murray’s London home with blood — something like this actually happens in Season 2.

For the sake of efficiency, though, I’ll only be talking about the 5 characters shown above: Vanessa Ives played by Eva Green (center), Ethan Chandler played by Josh Hartnett (front right), Sir Malcolm Murray played by Timothy Dalton (front left) — who are all original characters (although Sir Malcolm is tied to Mina from Dracula) — Victor Frankenstein played by Harry Treadaway (back right), and Dorian Gray played by Reeve Carney (back left). The last two are obviously from books, and are in fact, the titular characters of their respective novels.

​Let’s start with Eva Green’s character, Vanessa Ives, who is the true heart of the show. Season 1 has a definite mission, but it is Vanessa’s character arc & plot line that drives the series. Anyway, when we first meet her, she is a mysterious tarot-reading woman. She is gifted, but we’re not sure how. If you want to be like her, you can buy Vanessa Ives’ tarot cards from Amazon.

She is the only woman in the team assembled by Sir Malcolm to recover his daughter Mina (from Dracula) from a creature (vampire — kind of). You learn in S01E05, “Closer Than Sisters,” that she has had a really sordid and difficult past. Honestly, what character set in Victorian London doesn’t? Back in 2014, Julie Miller of Vanity Fair said “[Vanessa] encompasses the duality of good and evil under a veil of secrets” (read that interview after seeing Season 1).

Without giving too much away (and I really wish I could… but then I’d probably end up writing a whole blog post about her, and her alone), Vanessa is a very flawed woman and what makes her stand out is her constant “fight to get to the light” as Eva Green said in this video about her character in Season 3 (careful, it spoils the end of Season 2).

Side note: don’t subscribe to the Youtube channel until you are caught up with all 3 seasons as it has a number of spoilers. But, this one video sums her up very nicely:

Moving on to Ethan Chandler, played by Josh Hartnett, who is an American sharpshooter with a mysterious past. In a lot of the first season’s interviews, show creators and Hartnett said that Ethan is the audience’s way in because he is new to London and the dark Demimonde that Vanessa & Malcolm are searching.

But… maybe he’s not such a stranger to the supernatural, after all. He certainly has his fair share of secrets (which are painstakingly revealed giving viewers a slow burn) and has “such sins at my back it would kill me to turn around.” (S01E04, “Demimonde”) Similarly with Vanessa (who, as I’ve said, is the main driver of the story), I can’t say anymore about his arc without spoiling the main subplot of every season.

As much as I believe the show belongs to Vanessa Ives, Season 3 seems to be more about Ethan than either of the previous 2. That statement does not include the main series plot of a mysterious dark force/creature hunting Vanessa since before the series started. The reason I even say it is because after Season 2, I thought I had Mr. Chandler’s number, but I was so wrong. A certain revelation happens in Season 3 that had me gasping in shock.

He is definitely as complicated as Vanessa and is her match in almost every way.

Next is Timothy Dalton’s Sir Malcolm Murray, an well-known explorer or Africa and father of Mina Harker. A fun thing to note is that Dalton played James Bond and Eva Green was a Bond girl in the 2006 Casino Royale film with Daniel Craig.

As the third and final original character, Sir Malcolm Murray completes the main trio introduced in the Pilot of Season 1, but unlike his two companions, Sir Malcolm is created as the father of the well-known literary character Mina Harker (née Murray) from Bram Stoker’s Dracula).

An explorer of Africa (for some reason “African explorer” always makes me think the person being described is African and an explorer, not someone exploring Africa), Malcolm starts out the show as a cold and harsh man who is spearheading the hunt for his daughter. He is determined to save her no matter what, and disregards his servant Sembene’s comment: “Say you find her. But say she cannot be saved.” (S01E06, “What Death Can Join Together”) it is unclear until S01E05, “Closer Than Sisters,” what all of the taunting in S02E02, “Séance,” was referring to. And what a revelation it is.

For all of the beautiful character arcs in this show, I think that Malcolm’s may be the most tumultuous. You may disagree, especially after I talk about Frankenstein’s plot line, but I believe Sir Malcolm’s transition from the Pilot (S01E01, “Night Work”) to the end of the first season, through the 2nd season, and what we’ve seen of him in the 3rd season speaks volumes about how much a man can change because of hard times. Vanessa Ives even says one time, “We here have been brutalized with loss. It has made us brutal in return.” (S01E03, “Resurrection”) and it has. But maybe it can also help characters change for the better. It certainly did for Malcolm, even if it took a bit of time.

The second-to-last character I’m going to talk about is Victor Frankenstein played by the brilliantly talented Harry Treadaway. His character isn’t my favorite in the show, but I think his performance is my second-favorite in the series (only Eva Green’s tops it in my mind).

I will say that I hated the novel. (*cue affronted gasps*) I’m not saying I didn’t like the story. I think it’s actually one of the most beautiful ones I’ve ever read. I loved the play version with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, who switched every night between playing the roles of the Monster and the doctor — and incidentally both play Sherlock Holmes on two different TV shows: BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’ Elementary, respectively (you can read my post on “The Sherlock Phenomenon” here). It was the writing style (more the irregularity of the storyline with which it was told) that made reading the novel a kind of miserable experience for me.

But I’m here to talk about the show’s character development, not how I feel about the literary works that inspired it. Let me get right down to it, then: Dr. Victor Frankenstein is a narcissistic prick. Grant you, he’s a brilliant jerk, but one none the less. Though, if I had successfully resurrected someone (spoiler alert? The book has been out for 194 years at this point) — and in such a dirty, unscientific time as Victorian London — I suppose I’d be pretty damned pleased with myself too.

But Victor lets it go to his head. He looks down on all other forms of achievement, and tells Sir Malcolm this in S01E01. And, as a scientist, he also doesn’t believe anything to do with the supernatural (although why he scoffs at it when he has literally created life from death — technically, realistically speaking his feats are impossible and he would have only been able to reanimate muscles, not create an alive person from a corpse — confuses me)… until he’s forced to believe what he witnesses with his own eyes while working with Sir Malcolm’s group of Victorian misfits.

And, without giving too much away, Victor’s arc has a very steep rise, and then an even sharper fall, humbling the dear doctor and rendering him in quite a state by the end of the 2nd season. It’s actually kind of devastating to see how such a confident man is completely broken down by certain bad choices and loss. Season 3 hasn’t shown much promise of him recovering yet, but as of S03E07, “Ebb Tide,” there is hope that a (hopefully good) change is coming for him.

Last, but not least is Reeve Carney’s Dorian Gray. Definitely my favorite of the literary characters in the show, and definitely a spot on portrayal, this devil-may-care man with a face of an angel is anything but innocent. Unlike Frankenstein, but similar to the show’s treatment of Mina Murray, Dorian exists in this world outside of his source novel (where most of those originating events have supposedly already happened — but not the end… for obvious reasons).

Dorian’s home and outfits are also something out of time, as is his character. Show creator John Logan has gone on record saying that Dorian’s wardrobe is inspired by the actor Reeve Carney’s own rocker clothing repertoire.

What I perhaps like most about Dorian Gray’s character in Penny Dreadful is how assimilated he is into the main story. Relegated to a more minor subplot than Frankenstein until the end of Season 2 & onward, it’s a little ironic to see such a self-centered character stuck in the background.

I’m getting off track again. Sorry. I applaud John Logan for giving an interesting arc to a character who’s defining quality is that he doesn’t change. But we see his infatuation in Season 1, loss, (spoiler), and portrait in Season 2. But it’s really Season 3 that we finally get to see some “cracks in the placid surface, emotionally,” as Reeve Carney puts it in this interview (don’t watch until you’re caught up with Season 3 because… Spoilers). As a final note, kudos to Carney and Logan for making me care for a suave, but pretty heartless man who was first introduced in 1890, who has been played by multiple actors with multiple portraits. The Penny Dreadful portrait is my favorite (don’t click until you’ve seen S02E08, “Memento Mori”).

​So, what can writers learn from this long and apologetically vague collection of character case studies? We can learn that layers and subtlety are our friends. That a character’s past and secrets shape them, and the reader’s perception of said character. We can also learn the art of a slow reveal because sometimes the anticipation is the best part. A note of warning: characters should act in surprising ways, but never break character. You don’t want a reader to stop enjoying your story and characters because they suddenly think, “That would never happen” even in your fantasy world where dragons, mermaids, and magic exists. Suspension of disbelief is not just about world-building, but characters. After all, how else could I relate to the characters in so many supernatural shows?

As I write this, S03E07, “Ebb Tide,” just aired and fans only have two more (as a 2-part finale on 6/19/16). “Penny Dreadfuls” are waiting on pins and needles to know if there will be a Season 4). If you like this post and/or the show, please share this tweet:

And that’s it! If you liked this post, please comment below. If you disagreed with me, I welcome your criticisms too. And if you are a fan of the show and would like me to maybe do companion blog post including the characters Sembene, Mina, the Creature, and maybe a few others (like Joan Clayton), please tell me that, too.

Update (6/20/16): Penny Dreadful is done after 3 seasons. The creator John Logan always planned it this way, but many people in the twittersphere are in denial.

Originally published at www.zarahoffman.com.

Self-published author, authortuber/twitch streamer, grad student, musical theater lover, dog mom

Self-published author, authortuber/twitch streamer, grad student, musical theater lover, dog mom