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Mad Men? / 24 August 2014

Don Draper at work, doing what he does best.

Don Draper at work, doing what he does best.

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*includes spoilers to the series*

I’ve just watched Season 6 of Mad Men, the American drama series which airs in the UK on Sky Atlantic. I’ve watched it on DVD, so I’ve seen the last five episodes one after the other with one sleep in between, waking up wanting to know what happens next.

Mad Men, about the advertising agency biz in 1960’s New York, has been great to watch, but also left me wondering about characters, main characters specifically.

I read an article online from creator / writer Matthew Weiner which quoted him as saying he used everything he knew about those characters in season one… everything.

Which got me thinking, as I’m wondering about my own writing – how do you create a character like that, use everything you know about them. Then create a season 2… all the way up to a season 7?

OK, I’ll spill the beans here: A large part of me knows exactly how to do this, because I consider it part of the job. But also, a large part of me is thinking – does he do it the same way? How does he do it? Is there a secret?

As I was watching Don Draper, the lead character played by actor John Hamm, from a character / story prospective, Don is  interesting, obviously, but I wanted him to go a bit more crazy than he did. It’s clear that with his background, being someone who stole someone else’s identity to become who he is today, watching this season you get glimpses of his reckless behaviour, which is sometimes a little confusing, but I like that about this show - it doesn’t feel a need to explain anything. So throughout all the seasons of Mad Men you get glimpses of the characters past, and its not entirely clear whether the creator knew all this from the beginning or whether he chose it as the seasons went on. It doesn’t matter anyway, because it all seems to fit and make sense, as you’d expect from a TV show that spanned 7 years and been one of the most acclaimed in history.

But then how do you do that with your own character? Well, that’s what I’m figuring out. Don gets fired at end of season 6 (which I knew before I started watching) but I wanted his behaviour to be more reckless. His drinking is taking its toll, and he ends up punching a minister in a bar, ending up in jail. You don’t see the altercation, that’s not what the shows about. But you do see Don in jail, lying there in his sharp suit with all the other messy, disheveled criminals.

Back at work he ruins a meeting by telling him the real story of how he grew up to a chocolate bar company execs – he was brought up in a brothel and the prostitutes would give him chocolate if he found more than a dollar in clients pockets. This after a presentation which the chocolate company were happy to go with.
This is what gets him fired. It’s actually very subtle and understated, just like the whole show itself.

It doesn’t show Don suffering from Mental Health issues, although I’d say clearly he does, it just shows how he copes with it, what he does every day, in work and with personal relationships.

I want to show a character who's utterly reckless, but I also want him to be as 3-dimensional as Don Draper. I want it to show in the script and I want it to be a unique voice in TV writing, and I do have this idea. And funnily enough, I wasn't sure how to do it until I saw the opening pilot episode of MAD MEN season one. My UCLA tutor called my character "one of the most perverse characters he had ever read (in a good way)". But I stopped to think about it some more because it was a cop show, and I wasn't sure I was ready to write one at the time.

Now I think I am, I just need to figure out what kind of life and childhood my character needs to have to be utterly reckless. And I'm not sure how to do that. Yet. But I’m thinking about it, believe me.

I have the first ten pages of the script, and now I have to go back, right back to the beginnings of the character. Something that I normally gloss over, but for this one, it needs to be solid, building a character from the ground up. And I think maybe somewhere in there he’ll have wanted to be a pro footballer… They're all fucked up.