What makes a story or a character compelling? What makes us want to keep reading or keep watching a story? What makes us identify with it?
It is very important that a good story has all shades of gray. A character should not be black and white, unless there is an absolute purpose to him being that way. Otherwise, it makes a character flat.
A perfect example that I’d like to use is the series called La Femme Nikita. The original series ran on USA network from 1997 to 2001. The new series I’m referring to is called Nikita and is currently showing on WB11. I watched the original series religiously and have recently re-watched all five seasons on DVD. It was an exciting, insightful show with plenty of internal conflict to add to the action storyline. And this applied not only to the main protagonists, Nikita, Michael and others, but also the antagonists, the “villains”. Two of those, Operations and Madeline, were characters that you loved to hate. They were often the biggest bastards. But, at the same time, they were also shown to have a different side, a side that cared about certain people, a side that was thoughtful and perceptive. You got to see them in situations in which they were conflicted but chose certain actions because they had to, or because they believed it was for a the best. You got to see their motivations. Even you didn’t agree with their actions, you could understand where they were coming from. They were all shades of gray. And I loved every minutes of that show. You could never guess what’s coming next.
The new show, Nikita, is a total opposite of the original. Most of the characters are one-dimensional, almost childishly cartoonish in their black-and-whiteness. There’s very little tension, and most of the story is held by the external action, which is just not enough. The antagonist, Percy, is a typical “villain” whose motivations are so predictable and not likable, you almost don’t pay attention to him, despite him being one of the main characters and story “movers”.
In the original, there was also always tension of some kind within the story of Nikita and Michael’s relationship, throughout the whole fives seasons. Whether other people were trying to keep them apart or they had an internal struggle within themselves, there was always tension. To the very end the viewer couldn’t decide if Michael and Nikita were going to get a happy end or not. In the new show, they get together before the 1st season is out and have an almost happy-end type relationship going on right off the bat. In a word – boring and not realistic under the circumstances.
When writing, you have to keep in mind the same principles that apply to making a show interesting and watchable. You need to show various sides to your characters, be they your protagonists or antagonists. You need to show their motivations, what moves them, what makes them tick. Like a painter, you have to use all colors in your pallet to make the story more interesting. And that includes using all shades of gray.