A Practice in Empathy with Quinta Brunson

TV Writers on What Creating Characters Has Taught Them About the Real World

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: Quinta Brunson 

TV Credits: Quinta vs. Everything, Broke (YouTube Red), A Black Lady Sketch Show, Magical Girl Friendships Squad, iZombie, Single Parents

Also: Buzzfeed  

Things have really taken off for you–what have you been up to recently? 

I have a book coming out. I started it right before I turned twenty-eight and I’m thirty now. So much has changed with my life and my perspective, so that’s been a process–trying to land on who I am so I can put out an accurate message. 

I also sold a show to ABC which I’m really excited about. [It’s] about teachers in Philadelphia public schools. It’s a comedy, and I’m just really pumped about that and have been enjoying working on that. But I’m also just struck with the fear of…will there even be a 2021? 

Speaking of Philadelphia, we met at school there and it seems like you stay really engaged with local politics. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and upbringing? 

I come from a family of five children, two parents. [Coming from a big family] taught me the importance of community; it’s something I carry with me and that I like having in my life. I approach everything with a sense of community, that’s really important. 

My mom was a dancer and then became a kindergarten teacher. My dad was a gymnast and then became a parking lot manager because he just wanted a calm job to take care of his family. I really had an appreciation for the arts because they both were involved in one way or another. They were very afrocentric people before I came along, but it kind of assimilated [after a while]. You know, five kids…I think they were just working and trying to provide. But a lot of that was still carried into my life. 

Philly really defined alot of how I am. I have such an appreciation for the city and just want to see it be in a better place than it is currently, because I know what it can be; I know how good it can be. I know what history is there and what kind of people are there. It’s a big focus of mine to help. 

Sometimes it’s hard to speak honestly about the things we are closest to. How are finding writing about the city that means so much to you? 

It’s different from medium to medium. It’s really hard to write about Philly and family in the book because you feel this responsibility to be honest for a reader, but you don’t want to incriminate whatever it is you care about. Especially nowadays, we fear other people’s critique of the thing that we love. 

I can’t talk about how great Philly is without also talking about the fact that there’s a gun crisis. You know, I would love to just be able to talk about all the wonderful things about it, but I also want to be able to talk about what’s affecting the city in an honest way and trust that people know it’s coming from a place of love. 

I felt the same thing when writing about my family in my book. There are parts of my family life that I don’t want to open up to the world because I don’t want my family to be open to critique, but it’s just the truth. I love them, and I want to protect them even while writing about them. 

When it comes to the show I’m currently writing I’m able to talk about things more openly because I’m able to have characters play against each other. We get to see different perspectives and different views on an issue and how everyone is affected by one situation. It gets to play out in a way where viewers can put themselves in a character’s shoes and say oh okay I can see how I’d feel that way about that, or that’s exactly how I’d react, or yeah that’s right, that’s how people react to situations in life. Instead of what we have now with social media [where] we kind of react to things and go well that’s wrong and this is the way it should be. And it’s like, yeah…that’s cool and all, but that’s not the way it is.

Idealism is great but it’s not always connected to the reality of things. 

What do you see as the role of television right now? 

To me, when it comes to scripted television, you kind of choose one of two options: You choose aspirational television or you choose realistic television. 

For me, which I think people can kind of see in my work, I venture to show a realistic portrayal of life. It may be a little heightened here and there, but I’m very focused on…what is the reality for a girl like me living right now? What is happening with the average, everyday person? That’s what I want to put on TV, because I think it’s important. Which is what has led me to wanting to make this show about teachers, because the majority of us are teachers, you know, not lawyers. The majority of us are just trying to get by in these West Philly neighborhoods, or wherever it is.

You wrote an article for Playboy titled “Average Acceptance Now” honoring everyday life. Societally, we’re told we need to be exceptional and that life should be exceptional, but most of life isn’t. And instead of living with our mundane existence and accepting that, we sort of wait for the next exceptional moment. It causes a lot of pain and depression to be quite honest, because it means most of your life you’ve decided to be dissatisfied with. What does accepting the average look like to you? How do you think people can start to do that? 

By really looking around them and thinking what a feat it is that they are alive and made it this far, no matter who [they] are. I look around my life and there’s a lot I could be dissatisfied with, but I actively make the choice to be like, I have a roof over my head.  

Another big part of it is realizing that you’re not better than anyone. So many people try in this life and the cards are just stacked against them. We’re all really on the same playing field. That’s been stripped away from us in some ways in America with individualism and thinking we’re better than each other; America thinking it’s better than every country. Like, calm down. Why do we need this narrative to make ourselves feel good? Why do we need to be better than anyone to make ourselves feel good? Why can’t we just be okay with being human, and the human next to us is human, and then that’s fine. A huge part of it for me is just looking at myself as equal to everyone I come across and knowing that we have the same potential for greatness, love, hate–we all have the same recipe. 

What is character development like for you since you frequently write and play yourself? What have you learned about yourself by playing yourself? 

I’ve now played myself where I haven’t written myself, and I’m like oh this totally not me this is the perception of me, which is very interesting. People kind of look at me like a stoner, which is wild to me [laughs]. I’m like…wow I don’t feel like I give off that energy… but cool

When I write myself the most interesting thing I’ve learned is that I’m a villain sometimes

which is exciting for a writer. Who wants to watch a boring character who’s right all the time? Nobody. So really pointing out my own flaws and putting them on the paper is something I want to get better at. In a way it feels like therapy–here’s this thing I do and if I were to write out the scenario where I would kind of get my ass kicked for it this is what would happen. That’s a weird version of therapy for me. 

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 think people want revolution and I think they need unity to get there. Everyone is seeking a different kind of revolution right now and we’re all on such different pages. Overall we have to be unified in some things. 

This is not the sixties or anything any more. We have Facebook, we have Youtube, we have Twitter, we have Instagram. We have all these different avenues for communication, but with that it’s creating so many disconnected conversations and these pockets for people to have their own thoughts and opinions and ways of doing things. In a way it’s taking away what would have been easier unity forty, fifty years ago. I think that’s an issue. We’re all on very different pages about what to do next and I think that’s dangerous for a revolution because we have to agree on some things. That’s how you move the piano. 

What do you think prevents people from getting on the same page? 

Everyone wants to be right. 

You write comedy for the most part. What do you think comedy affords us? 

It affords us more opportunity to be truthful about the way things are. Dramas operate like…this person is making a bad decision and uh oh! And you’re strapped in for that ride. Comedy takes the edge off. You get to think…these people are gonna be alright by the end of this episode. Even though life sucks sometimes and people suck sometimes, these people are going to be okay. In a drama the truth hits you as something you have to deal with, [in comedy] the truth really hits you as something you can manage. 

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