See on Apple TV
So, See on AppleTV concluded last week. Written by Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders, Dirty Pretty Things, Locke), it’s been one of my favourite TV series of recent years.
Though unpopular with the critics, the show has been a big hit with audiences. This means I believe See has plenty to teach us as writers. Here’s eight powerful reminders from the show I picked out … Ready? Let’s go!
1) Old story, new telling
Post-apocalyptic worlds set in the future are not new. In the past ten years, they’ve been exceptionally popular. We’ve seen such dystopian storyworlds in The Hunger Games through to Mad Max Fury Road (and many more in-between).
In most of these stories, humankind has been forced to the edges of existence. People are living with extreme scarcity, created by the harshness of their environment or their government (often both). Faced with real-life global events in the last decade, it’s not hard to see the appeal of such stories.
See on AppleTV asks us to consider a world approximately five hundred years in the future where humans are all blind. Society is feudal and filled with peril, but not because everyone is disabled. Humans have adapted to such a degree that anyone who is NOT blind is considered a heretic. This means that when sighted twins Haniwa and Kofun are born, they are hunted as witches and face being burned at the stake.
Originality is overrated. Instead think about the stories that are popular, then provide a twist like they have here in See. This is how writers achieve ‘the same … but different.’ MORE: Kicking Arcs – Mastering Story Archetypes With Compelling Characters Modern Audiences Love
2) Worldbuilding is all-important
Exposition refers to the background information needed in order to understand the story. Part of this exposition is worldbuilding, aka HOW the storyworld works.
Worldbuilding is exceptionally important in fantasy series like See. In this story, everyone in the storyworld has particular talents, which break down roughly in four ways …
- An Ayurha is someone with a talent for hearing, plus an extrasensory ability to hear lies.
- A Scentier is someone who can smell exceptionally well.
- A PreSage is a person who has an empathic, emotional connection to people and the spiritual world.
- A Shadow is someone – usually a woman – who can mask their presence so well they are able to eavesdrop on people without them realising they were ever there.
In the pilot of See, the Alkenny tribe is facing attack from Queen Kane’s witchfinders, lead by the formidable Tamacti Jun (Christian Camargo). Our protagonist Baba Voss (Jason Momoa) must lead the tribe to victory to save his sighted twins, born only that day.
In the course of the fight against the witchfinders, Baba Voss calls forth his Ayhuras, Scentiers and PreSages to help him with his tactics. This is a great way of showing the audience how the world of the story works, without it being ‘on the nose’ (aka too obvious). After all, a fearsome general like Baba Voss will need all talents at his disposal during a battle.
In contrast, Shadows are not needed during this particular battle, so this important exposition is laid out for viewers later WHEN it’s called for.
Don’t forget to tell your target audience how the storyworld works … then stick to it. Also don’t load it all ‘upfront’ if you don’t have to.
3) Flipping our ‘usual’ expectations
In a storyworld in which nearly all characters are blind, viewers might consider being sighted a considerable advantage.
The opposite is true in See. Not only are sighted people hunted as witches, they are also exploited. Antagonists such as the ‘demon’ queen Sibeth Kane uses Baba Voss’ sighted son Kofun as a power-play to stave off her execution.
In addition, Baba Voss’ estranged brother Edo Voss (Dave Bautista) wants to create an army of sighted soldiers to give him the edge on the battlefield. Joseph Mengeles-type scientist Tormada (David Hewlett) forces sighted children to construct bombs for him.
In other words, being sighted in the world of See is nearly always a problem … NOT a solution.
Consider what audiences might assume … and then twist it to something that’s the exact opposite.
4) Defying ableist tropes
Our own real-life society is based on vision, so having none is a considerable disadvantage. Most of the everyday things sighted people take for granted frequently make life much harder for blind people.
This leads to various ableist assumptions by sighted people, which in turn feed particular tropes in storytelling. As an obvious example, sighted people may assume blind people cannot fight effectively. They may even believe blind people are helpless.
See smashes this false assumption wide open. Nearly all the characters must fight in some way, either as soldiers or for survival. Far from being a problem, their blindness makes them even more ferocious and better warriors.
This means Kofun is at a disadvantage BECAUSE he is sighted. His father Baba counsels him to ‘think like a blind man’ to be more successful in battle. Kofun learns from the witchfinder Toad, who makes him do sword drills whilst blindfolded.
In contrast, Kofun’s twin sister Haniwa relies on her sight as an archer … but she must hang back because otherwise she will be killed easily. Baba understands Haniwa is not willing to look at her sight as anything other than a gift. This is why he reminds her that her sight is a mere accident of birth and that she is not ‘special’. This element of the story reminds the audience at home we are not ‘special’ either.
When we are not used to seeing characters a certain way, it can pay to have a character as ‘the voice of the audience’.
5) Dialogue should reflect the characters’ reality
In See, most characters are very articulate generally. This means they talk about such topics as emotions, their motivations and their goals very frequently. The show basically ‘breaks the rules’ when it comes to the screenwriting adage, ‘show it, don’t tell it’.
Even so, this makes sense. In a vision-based world, we rely on body language and nonverbal cues, which means dialogue is not as important in getting our messages across to one another. In contrast, in a world in which most people are blind, humans would need to adapt … and the most obvious way to do this is to be more loquacious.
However it’s important to remember See does not allow its characters to say whatever they want 100% of the time. Dialogue still must push the story forward and reveal character. Neither is the show very static, with characters simply standing around talking all the time either. As ever, great characterisation is still about BEHAVIOUR.
Think about how the world in which your characters live informs HOW they speak to one another.
In See, many characters are on a redemption arc. This is most obvious in series lead Baba Voss, who rejected his past as a Slaver. Forced to abandon his people, he ran to the mountains. There, he met the Alkenny tribe and became their leader. As a fearsome warrior, he gave them protection … and as a tribe, they gave him his humanity as a husband and father.
Other characters on redemption arcs include s1 antagonist, Witchfinder General Tamacti Jun. He is faced with an unpalatable truth about his life and career when he is double-crossed. Forced between confronting what he has done and death, he chooses life.
Other characters are faced with the same choice. However, those who won’t attempt to redeem themselves in See are destined to be destroyed by their own lies, arrogance and wrath.
REMINDER # 6:
Audiences love to see characters who reject their dark pasts to become better people … and equally, they love to see the undoing of those who refuse that call for redemption.
7) Complex women, not 2D ‘strong female characters’
It’s hard to believe that just a few short years ago female characters were so sidelined. In See – like so many shows and movies of the new era – complex female characters are everywhere.
They may be ‘demons’ like Queen Kane, idealistic like Haniwa, conflicted like Maghra, kick-ass like Wren and Charlotte, or all-knowing like Paris. But better still, they are not reduced to these single elements. They are multifaceted.
Complex female leads are non-negotiables in the 2020s … and they’re ALWAYS more than one thing.
8) Authenticity is everything
Authenticity is the watch-word of the 2020s. It’s what audiences demand, which means the expertise of those with lived experience is a MUST when writing a story like See.
This meant that See used a blind consultant, as well as blind actors. Their lived experience made the show so much more authentic, but also far more INTERESTING. This in turn fed into the characterisation and plot.
As an example, Queen Sibeth Kane (Sylvia Hoeks) arrives in an unfamiliar house in Pennsa, when she is forced to flee her previous home of Kanzua. As she enters the palatial home she sings a high note and says ‘Oh, what a beautiful home.’
The singing of the high note immediately told me Sibeth was judging the size of the room via its echo. Being a sighted person, it would NEVER occur to me to write this. It is a great example of how including people with lived experience makes all the difference.
What’s more, it feeds into the character and plot. Sibeth would immediately consider a bigger room more beautiful; she is a greedy, demanding and petulant woman who wants everything her own way. Sure enough, moments later she ‘relieves’ the occupying Lord of his home and takes it for herself.
Even with the greatest imagination in the world, a writer always benefits from a sensitivity reader with lived experience.
Want to learn more?
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