A Practice in Empathy with Cord Jefferson

TV Writers on What Creating Characters Has Taught Them About the Real World, a Peek Mag series

PUBLISHED October 11, 2020

It’s often through seeing our own realities reflected back to us that we are able to process the truths and falsehoods of our lives. Television has been one model through which humanity has been presented a reflection of itself. We tune in to access the lives of other people, real or imaginary, with the hope of escaping from–or finding solace in–our own lived realities. But behind our favorite shows, plotlines, and characters sit the writers of television–the sketchers of our own portraits. How does creating a fictional world for television enable them to see the realities of our own world differently? What truths about humanity must one know in order to construct characters that are real and accessible? We talk to TV writers to better access the ‘us’ in their stories about others. 

Writer: Cord Jefferson

TV Credits: The Good Place, Succession, Watchmen, Master of None, The Nightly Show

Also: Former West Coast editor of Gawker and Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special

I have a theory that TV writers must be highly empathetic people, in that they have to traverse the mindsets of so many different types of characters in order to fully develop their motives and desires–describe the process of developing a character who may be nothing at all like you. How do you establish compassion with those characters?

I disagree with the premise. A human being is a human being. We all feel lonely, and we all want to be protected, and we all want to feel loved, and we want to be heard, and we feel jealousy, and we feel anger, and pain. The things that make you unlike somebody else are very frequently the surface things. 

When I work on Succession, you know, I’m not a white billionaire, but I have internal family drama, and I have conflict with my siblings, and I have conflict with my parents, and I want to be successful, and I want to earn the respect of my family and my parents. I understand those impulses. There’s basic human emotions in that show that even if you’re not a billionaire media magnate you can understand. And so I think those are the things I try to draw on when I think of character. 

If there’s a super power that a writer can have it’s the ability to be non-judgemental

– the ability to try to understand where people’s choices are coming from and what’s motivating them. I shy away from concepts like evil–that this person is evil, and it’s a binary solution that this person is bad and this person is good. I’m much more drawn in my work to things that aren’t binary in that way. I may dislike the decisions that this character is making, but I understand that if given a similar set of circumstances I may make those same decisions because I’m a human being and I’m flawed, and people make poor choices sometimes. A writer’s job is to draw out the human experience. 

Did you always have that non-judgmental ability to understand others? 

I remember a very influential moment in my life. My dad is a lawyer and he started out his career as a defense attorney. When I was really young we were watching the news and they had somebody who had committed a crime on TV…and I called the guy a bad guy. And I remember my dad muting the television and saying

There’s no such thing as bad people. There’s only people to whom bad things have happened.”

That stuck with me. I still think about that a lot. That’s been with me for probably thirty years of my life. I think I try to take that with me in my work and my personal life. 

You’ve said in past interviews “…the more layers of a character we come to understand, the more empathy we have for them.” To me that’s the practice we should have towards people in the real world. If all it takes for us to feel connected to other people is to understand them more, isn’t that how we solve all the world’s problems? 

[Laughs] Yeah, I mean I would hope so. That to me is one of the best parts of writing for TV, it allows you to be discursive and weird and dive into seemingly minor characters’ personal lives and learn more about them and sort of peel the layers off the onion, to use your analogy. That to me… I don’t know if it solves all the world’s problems, but it certainly allows a window into the lives of people you might otherwise write off as being bad or evil or villainous. 

What have you learned about yourself through the process of ‘putting yourself in a character’s shoes’? 

I’m thinking about personal connections I’ve had to characters and a couple leap to mind. The first is Chidi Adagonye on The Good Place. I think that Chidi to me felt in some ways like a revelation because

it is so exceedingly rare to see a black man on television who openly suffers from anxiety.

Even using the word anxiety is verboten for men. Men are allowed to say that we’re stressed out or that we’re angry, but black men in particular…the language of anxiety and nervousness have for a long time been a thing you don’t say because you need to be stoic and masculine. So I think working on a show in which a black male character was openly anxious and openly talked about his problems with that was really interesting to me. And I think that in some ways allowed me to start exploring that language in my own life and allowed me to be open about those kinds of things. 

The second one that comes to mind is Angela in Watchmen. Her understanding of generational trauma – generational trauma is a huge theme on that show – the understanding that the traumas that are inflicted upon our ancestors can find many ways to rear their heads in the present day and inflict trauma on us as well. The exploration that she goes on to figure out the origin of how she feels and what’s going on in her life was one that interested me deeply, and one that I felt compelled me in some ways to explore some of my past and my family’s history. 

Character work  can be thought of as establishing what a character wants, what a character needs, and then sort of exploring the tension between those two, which to me is a highly insightful way to look at life in general. What would you say that the world wants right now, what do you think we need?  

I would say that everybody wants to feel safe. And that what we all actually need is to feel unsafe and uncertain. 

The thing you’re really seeing at the heart of society is that people are afraid. And I think, I know, from what we saw from the RNC is that [the Republican party] is just stoking fear. It’s just out to make people terrified of their neighbor, and make people terrified of black people, and terrified of immigrants, and terrified of war and violence, and terrified of Antifa. Their entire goal is just to make people terrified. And you know I think everybody has the instinct to want to feel safe, everybody has the instinct to want to protect themselves and their family and the people that they love. 

I think what we’re seeing now is that the old way is not working and that fear is compelling people to hold on to that old way because that’s all they know and they’re terrified of trying something new. Because if we try something new it might get worse and my station might get worse. But…it might get better! That is the route that we need to take. 

People are terrified to take that risk because everybody wants to feel comfortable all the time. And in my life when I’ve really been proud of something, when I feel like I have accomplished something great, it is because I’ve sort of made myself uncomfortable and tried something new. 

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