Portrait of a Serial Copper

With crime drama perenially popular with television audiences it’s a genre that many writers will find themselves dipping into at some point in their career. Crime drama gives you a narrative drive and high stakes that are almost unmatched in other genres and, as Barbara Machin noted at the recent London Screenwriters’ Festival, writers can use that format and structure to tell their own stories.

Having script edited ITV’s crime drama ‘Blue Murder’ and read more crime scripts than you can shake a stick out I’ve noticed some recurring problems at the early stage of the development process. For me it’s the investigating characters that lie at the heart of any good crime drama.  When you think of ‘Prime Suspect’ you think of Jane Tennison, think of ‘Inspector Morse’ and it’s Morse and Lewis that you remember and it’s those characters that keep us coming back. If they care about uncovering the truth, then so will we.

In many of the spec scripts I read there is a tendency for the investigating characters, most often police, to be there simply as plot functions, ciphers for the story which leads us to uncover the truth.  What’s almost always lacking is an understanding of who those characters are and what makes them tick.

Think about your character but then apply those traits to how they function at work.  What kind of copper are they? I’ve listed some questions you and the audience should be able to answer about any police characters.

Ambition – How did they end up here and where are they heading? Are they a beat copper or a graduate on a fast-track to the top? Are they happy with their rank or are they trying to get up the ladder? This will have a big impact on how they relate to other members of the team.  Are their colleagues a support network or their rivals?

Instinct – Are they methodical? Are they driven by their head or their gut instinct? Is this about the quick chase or a long game of chess?

Focus – Do they latch onto one theory/suspect and blinkedly pursue that? Do they refuse to rule anything out and try to simultaneously follow every lead?

Morality – Where are the lines in the sand they would not cross? How judgemental are they of those that cross those lines? What is their view on the criminal world in general, on specific known criminals and on murder (is a crime of passion ok but premeditated murder unacceptable)? How squeaky clean are they? What skeletons are in their cupboard and how do they justify those decisions? How do they view misdemeanors among their colleagues? Are rules drawn in stone or there to be bent or broken?

Obsession – How obsessive are they? Are they after the truth at any cost (moral, personal, financial)? Are they measured in their work, do they have a reasonable life outside work?

We need to know who they are, what kind of coppers they are, and then we need to see how their world-view affects how the story unfolds. What conflict is created by these characters’ differing views among themselves and with those they come across during the investigation? How do the strengths and flaws of the main police characters affect what actually happens.  For example, a judgemental copper might send a witness running scared while another copper’s more forgiving view might get them the information the team needs. So if you need to delay revealing something, you’d have the judgemental copper do that interview.

It might seem like stating the bleedin’ obvious but when you’re grappling with a complex murder story plot it’s amazing how easily the stuff we really care about, the characters, gets forgotten.

If you’ve got any other thoughts on creating great police characters I’d love to hear from you.

2 responses to “Portrait of a Serial Copper

  1. Really enjoyed this, thanks for posting it. I would love to get into scriptwriting, so any pointers in the right direction are always welcome.

  2. I sometimes suggest that if you’ve held down a job for any length of time, then adapt your memory of the workplace dynamic to structure the team that you want to portray. Remember who was the natural leader and why; the person who had no ambition but invaluable people skills; the one who did the work perfectly but whose life and interests were entirely elsewhere… doesn’t matter if it was a KFC or a design office, a police team built around the same human relationships will have a ring of truth to it.

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