From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Monday, September 22, 2014

4 Great Lessons for Writers from Ron Swanson

So my roommate and I just finished catching up on Parks and Rec.

I didn't expect to ever find a show with quite that perfect mixture of sweet and awkward and real and poignant that The Office had, but let me tell you, Parks and Rec came pretty darn close.

As with The Office, this show is all about character. We care about these shows not for the ridiculous and quirky plots, but because the characters are so absolutely engaging. Each character seems to be perfectly balanced between very grounded and recognizable as well as over-the-top quirky and interesting. If we can write characters the way Michael Scott and Leslie Knope were written, we're on a good road.

Perhaps my favorite character (well, one of them...there's just so many good options!) was of course, the oft quoted Ron Swanson. Quick bit of trivia for those who watch the show: did you know that Nick Offerman, who plays Swanson, is actually a carpenter, actually plays the saxaphone, and is actually married in real life to the actress who plays Tammy Two? That just brings me so much weird joy I can hardly stand it.

Anyway. With characters like Ron, we writers could do well to take lessons from both the character and the way he was written. So here are a few lessons I think writers can learn from Ron Swanson:

1. We love all-in characters: I think in any storytelling medium, we love over-the-top obsessed characters. Characters who are so into something we start being reminded of that character whenever we encounter their obsession in real life. Parks and Rec has many examples of this type of character quirk. For example, at our post-church "munch-and-mingle" yesterday we had strawberry shortcake with whipped cream and as I lathered on that yummy whipped cream I couldn't help but think of Leslie Knope. As for Ron Swanson, I think of him whenever I have a burger or a steak. Any big hunk of meat on my plate is a good Swanson moment for me. I smile to myself as I remember the utterly devastated look on his face when he sees that his favorite steak place has been boarded up. I really think it just comes down to loving characters who are absolutely passionate, and when its so specific and visceral, that's something that is very easy to connect with.

2. Your readers will have possibly surprising interests: The Ron Swanson we initially get to know is a burly, mustachioed, meat-loving, wood-carving lug of a man. His interest in meat and woodcarving seems to hit the nail right on the head. Of course someone like him would love meat and chopping down trees. Of course he could finish off an entire office building floor by himself in less time than it would take the entire reconstruction crew.

But then we are introduced to something surprising--Duke Silver, Swanson's swoon-causing saxophone playing alter-ego. This is a more covert but still solid part of Ron's identity. It will be the same with our readers. Writers are often told to focus on the clear interests of your ideal reader, and that is great advice. Approaching Ron Swanson via his interest in meat or carpentry is a good plan. But we might do well to keep in mind that the other, perhaps less obvious interests we may have, may be shared by people who would fit well in our readership. We can use these interests as social media and blog topics, or article ideas, or in a myriad of other ways.

3. Not all your readers will be on the grid: Anybody remember the episode when Ron finds out that advertising companies have some of his information, and he chucks his whole computer in the dumpster? Now that's an extreme example, but there are plenty of people who are best approached somewhere other than cyberspace. Perhaps there is a reader out there ideal for your particular book who gets most of her recommendations and info from friends or newspapers or magazines. We don't often think of those venues in our instant-info-internet era, but they are still very much there, and very valuable. This is why I think it wise for any writer, regardless the genre of your books, to pitch articles to various magazines and submit short stories and poetry to magazines and anthologies. There is still something very powerful about the printed page, and these venues provide a way to reach readers we may not have otherwise. 

4. We love the soft side: One reason I love Ron Swanson so much is that my favorite characters are the ones with a gruff exterior who very rarely reveal their softer side. It just makes me squee with delight, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one. Our hearts are warmed when Ron hints in the best way he knows how the way he truly feels about Leslie. We love when Ron gets embarrassed or even slightly emotional. These show the human side of these types of characters and take them past entertaining into relatable.

I hope this gives you some good ideas and inspiration. What do you think? Can you think of any other lessons we writers can take from the Swanson?

Write on!

Sarah Allen

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  1. Parks and Recreation is an awesome show. You're right - the characters make it.

    1. Isn't it? And yes...every character is just so great!

  2. Replies
    1. Glad you love the show too :) It's such a good one. And glad this could be helpful!

  3. Loved The Office, but haven't started Parks and Rec. May have to give it a shot when I'm out on maternity leave :) thanks for the heads up!

    1. It's such a good one :) And I guess I should warn you not to judge it by the first season. It just keeps getting better :)

  4. Another great post, Sarah. Hadn't thought of a TV character as a source of writing tips but these are great. I will keep them in mind as I try to give depth and surprise to my characters.

    1. Thank you so much, Noelle! I appreciate it. Since I spend a good chunk of my time with television and movies, I figure I should make the most of it :)

  5. LOVE this! I was just discussing with my husband how the characters on shows like "Parks and Rec" and "The Office" make the show. You can (like "Seinfeld") have a show about virtually nothing plot-wise and just enjoy watching all the personalities bounce off of each other. Not only that, but there's always at least one character we can relate to! You hit the nail on the head.

    1. Aww, thanks Brielle :) How are you guys?? And yes, absolutely. Love Seinfeld, esp George :)

  6. =) I love quirky characters. I think that's why we loved Firefly so much. Truthfully, we couldn't get into the office though. Too uncomfortable. I love when characters have subtle layers they don't show right at first, but that we get to meet over time. So awesome.

    1. Ooh, Firefly is such a great show! And yeah, actually my roommate initially couldn't stand the uncomfortable awkwardness in The Office either, but after a few tries and getting to know the characters it just becomes so heartwarming :)


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