Since I wrote in my last post about the importance of character in television series, I have been thinking about how critics have viewed characters on television in general. As I thought about it, a particular criticism which has periodically cropped up in broad opinion pieces by TV critics throughout the history of television kept floating up in my mind – why do many main characters seem to have the same types of careers, even though these jobs represent a small portion of the general population? I am sure many will recognize the questioning commentary that most TV series and their main characters seem to be lawyers, doctors, police officers, or private eyes, when the majority of the general population has jobs as construction workers, factory workers, sales clerks, or farm workers. The general critical discussion tends to tilt more to bemoaning the unrealistic impression that lawyers, doctors, police officers and private eyes are more important to society, thereby not giving enough credit to the value of these other clerical or labor intensive jobs to society and civilization. However, in considering this position, especially as it pertains to creating characters when writing, what I realized is despite the admirable concept of seeking a more equal view of all individuals, the art of storytelling and mythology throughout the history of mankind has focused on heroic characters that broadly lead or challenge society in general. From the beginning, the early myths, legends and fairy tales were stories of gods, kings, wizards and warriors.
Classic storytelling is built around conflict or challenge – not the everyday challenge of handling the daily grind of life, but the broad challenge of facing a major conflict or struggle. The sagas and myths explained why nature acted the way it did, gave praise to the triumphs of a tribe or civilization, and sought solutions to battle the monsters around us. It was the gods who created the world and the rules under which nature worked for and against man. It took kings to lead armies against enemies, to mediate among opposing forces, and to protect societies from disorder. It took strong warriors to protect lesser men from evil and destructive forces and to boldly explore new lands beyond the horizon. It took powerful wizards to create and project major spells to ward off evil monsters and deadly diseases. For ancient and medieval civilizations, these leaders guided and defended the common members of society during important challenges of war, growth, exploration, and death. With the advances in scientific knowledge and the rise of more democratic and republican governments within a more interconnected global culture, these characters may have faded from the modern story, but their roles have not. Within modern society, lawyers, doctors, police officers and private eyes take on these roles at the local level.
When a disagreement escalates between two parties, police officers would be necessary to help maintain order and try to resolve the issue peacefully, while lawyers become mediators seeking to define the rules around which the parties must operate peacefully. A lawyer can also represent a strong defender for the common client against corrupt forces, while a private detective can be the solitary hero uncovering the truth against an evil army of lies. Doctors cast modern spells of medical knowledge against disease, injury and death and explore the continuing mysteries and horizons of life. It is very easy to see that these jobs represent the mediators, explorers and defenders of society at times of conflict or challenge, so in a way, it is understandable that the somewhat heroic (or anti-heroic) major characters of television and movies would more likely take on these professions over the more common careers that maintain the steady drumbeat of life.