Creating Character Chemistry
When the TV series Castle first came out I didn't give it a second thought. Over the years I heard good things about it and my interest grew. Anytime there is a show or movie where the lead character is a writer, I like to see how they are portrayed. More often than not they make authors the stereotyped drunk suffering for his art. Fast forward several years later and I finally got a chance to see that Castle took a different route. It fast became one of my all-time favorite TV shows. Based on one big reason: character chemistry.
For those who don't know, Castle is about a best-selling crime novelist, Rick Castle, who winds up following around a badass female detective, Kate Beckett, to do research for his book. Hi-jinks ensue!
The plot is wonky and the episodes over-the-top. All of that just adds to the fun. But the best part of the show is the chemistry between the two lead characters. Whether they are in a heated argument or involved in a lighter episode ripe with comedy, Castle and Beckett play off each other perfectly.
Their banter and sexual tension drew audiences in and made the series extremely popular in many countries. The actors played a large part in the development of the characters but it starts in the writing room.
That leads me to the topic of creating character chemistry.
Whether on screen or on the page having chemistry between characters is probably one of the most important aspects of developing them. This is especially true of characters that are meant to fall in love later in their arcs.
In the case of Castle, you have two seemingly different types of people:
Richard Castle is called the "rockstar author." He's shot to fame not only from his books but from his badboy ways and charming demeanor. He doesn't take life too seriously and his whimsical look at the world clashes with our other lead...
Kate Beckett. A polished homicide detective with a gritty past involving her murdered mother. It's what drives her to be a great detective and seems to be the motivating force for her entire life until Castle comes along.
But wait...turns out Kate is a fan of Rick's books. So Rick of course writes her in as a character (we've all done that!) and their relationship blossoms with each seeing how the other half lives. Then they start to adopt the best traits of their "partner" which inevitably leads to a romance which of course is taboo because they work together.
Do you see how the dominoes fall during the course of character interactions? It seems obvious while watching the show where the direction of the story will go, but if you stuck your head in the writer's room you would know they are brainstorming these intricate plots well past season one and deep into what became an 8 season run.
Knowing your characters are destined to be together at the outset doesn't mean there is a clear path to get them there. In fact, the rockier the path the better. They push and pull and make each other crazy until it blows up into a passionate kiss. But Castle got it right where others in the past have failed.
When two characters finally bridge the gap from friends to lovers they can wind up fizzling out because the sexual tension is no longer there. It's called "The Moonlighting Curse." Back in the 80s Moonlighting had their own two-person police procedural drama. The chemistry between David Addison and Maddie Hayes was off the charts and fans loved it. But when the creators got Maddie and David past the point of no return with their relationship it wound up killing the show. Faced with similar dilemmas in their own shows it usually takes writers a long build up before letting their two characters become an item. Once they do, it is up to fancy storytelling to keep it interesting.
How Castle got it right
Even though the chemistry was there from the offset, the writers knew enough to reel it back enough so they wouldn't jump the shark with the relationship. The slow build to get Castle & Beckett together was done in a believable manner. The blockades they threw in their way made sense to the story arcs and didn't feel forced. It wasn't just "we work together, we're friends, we can't" ... there were deeper levels at play that kept the audience invested in the overall story AND the "will they, won't they" part of the relationship.
Once the writers pulled the trigger and got them together, fans were rewarded for waiting. All the time spent with these characters was culminated in a climactic kiss that rocked the screen. (shoutout to Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic for that one!) I remember a similar series, Bones playing the waiting game with their characters only to have them get together off screen. That's an insult to viewers.
When Castle & Beckett did get together, it was the on screen chemistry between the two that kept people tuning in. The writers leaned into comedy bits of trying to hide their relationship and also the angst of having their loved one in trouble. Now that they let on about their feelings, the stakes were higher.
Plus, the writers gave them more hurdles to jump before eventually getting married. Letting them get married could've also been a big mistake but because the theme of the show was already about the two characters solving crimes together, throwing a ring on their fingers (when wardrobe remembered to do so) added to the story. And of course an inevitable wedge comes between our heroes only to have them come back around to each other. It's the same way any author builds on a three-act structure in a book only these stories are paced over 24 episodes per season.
What Castle did wrong
For every good thing a TV series does, it seems none of them are flawless. In the case of Castle, the network and producers did the one thing you simply do not do when creating a long series: They didn't listen to their audience.
The popularity of Castle was built on the strength of the relationship between the Castle and Beckett characters. An argument can be made that if not for the chemistry between these two characters, and the actors that played them, the series wouldn't have been as popular. Why then would they decide to eliminate half of the winning act from the series?
In a hair-brained move, the studio cut actress Stana Katic from the show going into a possible 9th season for budgetary reasons (because if an actress asks for a raise she's immediately the enemy apparently). The blowback from fans was so severe the show itself wound up getting cancelled leaving viewers with a lackluster series finale that felt rushed.
If the producers and network bothered to pay attention to their fan base, the ones who made the show stay afloat for eight years, they would've realized that no Stana = no show. The fans didn't come up with the relationship name "Caskett" for no reason. Once you have a winning formula why on earth would you dissolve it? I don't pretend to understand Hollywood, but in the literary world unless killing off a character drives the story forward there is no reason to demolish something fans have come to love.
I know after Game of Thrones the big thing became killing off popular characters. But what GOT had that alot of other books and shows don't is that the world of Westeros was populated by MANY fan favorites. So, when GRR Martin killed someone off, fans could lean into a different character because they already loved them. But if you kill off the Beckett character and try to replace her with a half-ass knock off after eight years, fans are going to be rightfully pissed.
The beauty of building worlds and placing characters within them is finding how they relate to the stimuli the writer creates. That starts with knowing who these characters are before even putting pen to page.
If they didn't give Kate a tragic backstory, she would approach her world view differently. If Castle wasn't a doting dad his antics may come off obnoxious instead of charming and we wouldn't want to see him get with Beckett. But the two are the perfect yin-yang and they work better than a lot of other TV couples who tried the same formula.
Layers and depth make great characters that are likeable and relatable. That makes the audience empathize and want to follow our heroes where ever they go next. Just remember not to try and kill them off unless it makes sense to the story.