What I learned about fictional characters by watching Downton Abbey

By Elizabeth Engstrom

Spoiler alert: If you have not watched this series and intend to, do not read this.

I binge-watched Downton Abbey. Six seasons in two weeks, give or take, while my husband was fishing. As most of you know, this is a completely different experience from watching one hour a week for six years. I was immersed, and could therefore follow storylines very closely. Perhaps too closely.

These are some of the things I learned about a television series that captured the imaginations of pretty much everybody who watched it. We want to learn from the winners.

  1. The Upstairs people had ridiculous problems, and many of the characters were annoying in their lack of self-awareness. When Mary was on the screen, I went to the kitchen for another cup of coffee, or leafed through a magazine. She grated on me.
  2. The opposite of Mary was the Dowager Countess. Loved her. Love Maggie Smith in anything, but in this series, she had the best lines and the best facial expressions.
  3. The Upstairs men were all stupid, and the women surreptitiously controlled everything. I kind of enjoyed this subplot, as His Lordship Earl of Grantham was the big cheese, but never did anything productive in his life except lose his wife’s fortune and love his dog. Her Ladyship the Countess of Grantham knew what was what and took care of business, at least as much as her headstrong daughters would allow.
  4. The Downstairs people were fascinating. I loved every one of them, even the sinister Thomas Barrow, who became not only sympathetic, but eventually redeemed himself. This was a plot line that worked very well for me through the entire series.
  5. The relationship between the Housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes and the Butler, Mr. Carson (he was fantastic!) charmed me. Ditto the relationship between the Cook, Mrs. Patmore, and her assistant Daisy.
  6. My heart was really with the poor Mr. Bates and his darling wife. They were adorable individually and together, and the genius of the show (their storyline was really what kept me interested) is that they were the absolute picture of truth, goodness, and beauty, and injustice kept falling on their heads. First, he’s in prison, then she’s in prison, for offenses they didn’t commit. Then they couldn’t marry. Then they could marry but couldn’t inherit his dead wife’s ill-gotten estate. Then they couldn’t have a baby, the only thing they really wanted. For some reason, the fact that the Upstairs people were fertile and ashamed of it while these sweet people kept miscarrying invoked an interesting series of emotions.
  7. The series lasted one year too long. The writers were reaching for storylines by the end.

So, what did I learn about fiction from this marathon binge?

  1. Visit continual and horrific injustices on the nicest people.
  2. Let evil people run their evil almost to the breaking point, and then make them pay with whatever is dearest to them.
  3. Reward good people for their good works, but do it with a light touch. Let the reader/viewer fill in the happy ending details. Remember, fiction is about conflict.
  4. Let those who are their own worst enemy reap the rewards of their own making.
  5. Let the wily old ladies steal the scene. And
  6. Don’t keep writing just because you love the characters. Know when to quit, put in a period and write “The End.”

I know, these are not new insights, nor are they earth-shattering revelations. But it’s always good to pick apart something that works and see what makes it tick.

And now a question for you: What did you learn about fictional characters by watching the series finale of The Good Wife?

4 thoughts on “What I learned about fictional characters by watching Downton Abbey

  1. What is it about Mary? For me, she brought a tension to her scenes because she was so bitchy sometimes. I liked those scenes–the character you love to hate thing, I guess.

  2. Really disliked Mary, but liked Edith better when she was more evil. Go figure. For me this show was a lot about the sumptuous visuals. That house! Those clothes!

  3. Pingback: What I Learned About Plot by Watching Orphan Black | ShadowSpinners

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