Dexter Morgan: Character Portrayal in Books vs. TV

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It’s been several years now since Dexter aired it’s series finale on Showtime. Along with most of the viewership, I feel a deep sense of dissatisfaction with how the show decided to end things (more on that later), but at the time it also left me wondering how the story might have progressed if a set of creative forces had taken its reins and run with it. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to wonder too much, as there existed a whole series of books that had inspired the TV show just waiting for me to explore, and contrast with its small screen counterpart.

Fair warning for those still binging on Netflix, there are bound to be spoilers below, and now that you’ve been alerted of it [in bold font, no less!], please don’t send me emails complaining about it. Cool? Cool.

If you’ve watched all eight seasons of the Dexter TV show, and then read all 8 books in the Dexter crime thriller series by Jeff Lindsay, you’ll have noticed some key differences in how the two mediums portray the personality and life events of its eponymous main character, Dexter Morgan.

I’m someone who happens to believe that changes to characters and narratives should not be reflexively dismissed as a negative. It is simply a fact that certain means by which a story can be structured within the confines of a book, does not always translate well onto the screen, and vice versa. Writers often have to make adjustments to allow for pacing, as well as the diverse means by which audiences consume either medium, in order to weave together a consistent and coherent plot. To put it simply: sometimes what reads well on paper, doesn’t always work too great when watched on a TV set (or any other screen). And audiences need to be mindful of this when comparing the differences between the two.

With that aside, these are the major difference that jumped out at me between Dexter, as portrayed in the pages of the books, and the TV series inspired by it, as well as the impact these differences hold for the overall narratives for either medium:

  • In the TV show, Dexter goes through a clear character arc where we see his psychopathic nature soften as he starts to identify with the individuals in his life, and humanizes as a result of his interactions with them (at least when comparing Season 1 Dexter, with Season 8 Dexter). In the books, no such arc happens. His outlook is the same in the last book (Dexter is Dead) as it is in the first book (Darkly Dreaming Dexter), that is to say, book Dexter remains as narcissistic and egocentric as he always was through every major life event. Personally, I think this difference works best for each medium. When it comes to books, you can still sympathize with a psychopathic protagonist if the story is written from his point of view, and he’s charmingly humorous about his monstrous behavior to boot. We’re just more forgiving because we experience the first-person account with him from inside his head, and had fun doing it, no matter how “bad” of a person he objectively is. Without a doubt, this wouldn’t work the same on a TV Show, or would be very tricky to pull off properly. Viewers want to know that the story they’re watching is progressing forward, and obvious character growth is a key way to portray that progression, otherwise you risk leaving the audience feeling cheated at getting invested in a character who seemingly has remained unaffected by anything that’s happened to them in the course of all major plot points you spent with them [I’m looking at you, Season 8 Jaime Lannister].
  • In the TV show, the Dark Passenger is just a metaphor Dexter uses to personify his homicidal urges, and in no way supernatural; in contrast, the books take a whole different angle on this whole concept. Book 3 of the series (Dexter in the Dark), makes it clear that the source of all psychopathic tendencies in the world has a supernatural origin, and descends from an ancient sacrificial deity named Moloch. Rather than being a manifestation of his darker urges, Dexter’s Dark Passenger is explained to be an entity existing separate from his own psyche, and is in no ambiguous terms presented as stemming from this supernatural source. It was a weak and nonsensical plot device that divided the fan base when Book 3 first came out, and for that reason gets downplayed in subsequent books. Nevertheless, it’s still there in the subtext and remains weak and nonsensical all throughout the book series’ run, whenever it is referenced again. For those wondering if there is an element of the story the TV show handles better than the books, I would say its interpretation of the Dark Passenger is an obvious winner in that regard. Not only is it more consistent with the tone of the greater narrative at play, it also serves as a better overall characterization of Dexter’s character, as the ultimate responsibility of his nature is still understood to be him at its core, and not the results of some convoluted spiritual influence at the hands of some ancient deity craving for a regular dose of human blood, or whatever.
  • Finally, the finale conclusions are very different. The last book in the series is titled Dexter is Dead, and although a bit of a spoiler in name alone, I found it to be a satisfying enough finish to the character, and recommend it as an overall entertaining read (though you do need to have also read at least the preceding book to understand many of the circumstances and references made throughout the narrative). In contrast, when it comes to the show’s finale, I defy anybody to defend that horrible last episode to me. I won’t go into too much of the details for those who can handle any and all spoilers except ones regarding a series’ closing scenes, but I’ll give a warning that I personally found the show’s finale to be an incoherent mess that spits in the face of all logic and any viewers who stuck around with it to the end (no, I’m not bitter–you’re bitter!). The final book in comparison is a much more fitting conclusion to the narrative, and has no stupid lumberjacks in sight.

I’m sure there are many other differences one could choose to go over, especially regarding secondary character developments (let’s just say, the books are not too kind with how they treat Detective James Doakes; I mean, he survives throughout the run of the books, but it sure ain’t a good life), but I wanted to primarily keep the focus on the character of Dexter himself. Also, maybe low-key intrigue some of the people I know reading this to read up on a few of the books, so I can finally have someone to discuss them with. Hey, a self-centered, narcissistic bookwork can dream, right?

Pin by esky :) on memes | Dexter morgan, Dexter, Michael c hall

Character Backgrounds: The Dilemma of Sharing Too Little, or Too Much

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When writing a story, there exists a natural disconnect between how the author interprets the plot, and how the audience reads it.  The obvious reason for this being that the author has the (mis)fortune of knowing the intended background details of the events and characters before they ever makes their way onto the page, in ways that are not readily available to the reader.  The task for any decent writer is to convey these details in a way that makes for a compelling narrative that will be neither overbearing for the reader, nor leave them stranded in the dark regarding important plot/character developments.

Spotting moments when an author is being too reserved with details is fairly easy.  Anytime you’ve come across a part of a story or book that left you wondering, “Wait, who is this, and why are they suddenly in the middle of everything?  Where they hell did they come from?” you were essentially exposed to underdeveloped writing.  Be sure not to misunderstand what I’m saying, though.  Introducing new characters, and strategically withholding information about them, can be an effective writing technique to invigorate interest back into the plot, as a little mystery can go a long way in building much needed suspense in an otherwise stale plot.

As an example, imagine a love story between two characters named Tom and Jill.  For over a hundred pages, you followed along as Tom sees Jill, falls in love with her, and tries desperately to impress her.  Jill was originally aloof regarding Tom’s advances, but slowly she starts to feel flattered by his affection for her, and agrees to give him a chance.  Things are going great for the two love birds for several more pages, then—just as the plot can’t bear the weight of anymore Hallmark moment clichés—a sudden wrench is thrown into the mix:

Nothing could tear Tom’s gaze away from Jill’s eyes.  The shape of them, their softness as she smiled, even the wrinkles that formed at the corners of her eyelids as she laughed, all worked to keep him in a hypnotic trance from which he could not—would not—escape.  Or so he thought.  Because the moment Susan Gallaghan walked by them, he felt his eyes wander from his beloved Jill’s enchanting eyes, to the rhythmic steps that paced along in front of him.

Let’s assume this is the first time this Susan character is ever mentioned in the plot.  The first thoughts any reader is going to have will be along the lines of:  “Who the hell is this Susan person?”, “Is she someone new to Tom?”, “Is she an old flame?”, “Is she a girl from his youth that he secretly pined after?”, “Is Tom actually a serial killer, and Susan his next victim?”  At this point, we, the audience, have no clue.  The fact that we have no clue is what makes it a brilliant writer’s trick, because now you are invested in the dilemma and subsequent resolution that is sure to follow.

But what if the drama never really follows the way you expect it to?  While the sudden introduction of this new character works to spark the reader’s interest in the development of the story, it can only carry the audience’s engagement so far.  If Susan keeps popping up in the same way, with the same vague acknowledgment from the established characters, the reader’s interest will quickly turn to frustration, and ultimately to disinterest.  You have to give the audience a reason as to why the things that are happening on the page are worth being mentioned to begin with, and in the case of character development, this means divulging at the very least some connection between secondary plot-devise characters (like Susan above) and the main protagonists.

Divulging a character’s background effectively in a narrative is not as easy as it may sound.  A lot of times it can come across bloated, and a poor attempt to force feed too much information into the plot, just for the sake of having the reader know why this person exists in the story.

Imagine if the mysterious introduction of Susan above followed up with:

Tom immediately recognized Susan as his high school sweetheart, to whom he had lost his virginity to on prom night.  The two of them went their separate ways soon after graduation, but Tom never quite got over his love for Susan.  Susan, for her part, had little trouble moving on from Tom.  So much so, that she moved away to study and travel abroad.  As she traveled the world, she gained an appreciation for herself, and how she didn’t need to define her identity by any one person that happened to be in her life.  Unlike Tom, Susan wasn’t validated by whether someone loved her; she felt complete knowing that she loved herself.  Even now as she walked past him with all the confidence of a young woman who intended to live  her life to the fullest, Tom’s heart throbbed once again for the one that got away.  Though Susan didn’t recognize Tom, the two of them would be seeing a lot more of each other from her on out, since she was set to begin a new position in the very firm Tom worked at.

The problem here isn’t that this information is being revealed within the plot; it’s that there is no reason to have it laid out all at once, let alone right after the mysteriousness regarding Susan’s presence was so brilliantly executed.  All of this can be revealed through the course of several pages, if not several chapters.  Again, by all means give the necessary background to establish a character, but there is no need to lump it all together in one spot, because then your narrative will inevitably end up repeating itself again and again, every single time the information needs to be revisited.  Eventually, Tom and Susan will have a confrontation, where hints can be dropped regarding their past intimacy.  Rather than state that Susan is a confident and independent person, why not show it by the way she behaves and interacts with her surroundings and the other characters?  Pretty much everything stated in that one paragraph can be dispersed throughout the story by piecemeal, without having to kill the suspense of revealing it all in one big swoop (especially right after the mystery character is introduced).

For a real literary example of where an author does a superb job of balancing the enigma of his characters with their subtle background revelations throughout the plot, I would point to the characters of Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.  Even before the book’s otherworldly narrative is revealed, these two characters’ peculiar manner of dress and manner of speaking foreshadows a fantastical nature to their persons (and, by extension, the plot itself).  All of which is subtly explored in what essentially amounts to breadcrumbs worth of information through the course of a 300+ page story.  And in the end of it all, the mystery behind who/what Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar really are is never fully revealed, precisely because there is no reason for the story to do so.

Ultimately, it’s up to every writer to decide how much is too much background exhibition for her/his characters, and how much is just enough to not stifle character and plot development.  That happy balance will largely depend on the sort of story you are trying to tell, and it may take several revisions to get it within the range you are aiming for.  But, while it’s not always straightforward in either case, being able to spot the problem in other written works means you are more than capable of applying that critical eye to your own.  Like a lot of writing advice, it simply starts with reading your writings not as an author, but as a reader, first and foremost.