Television

Lost: a Character-Driven Series

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Reducing the multi-awarded series to a story about the survivors of a plane crash on a mysterious island would be too simplistic. While Lost could first be seen as a show where supernatural events happen on an island, it is also, and more importantly maybe, a series centered on the characters. More than in any other TV shows indeed, the backgrounds and personal stories of the main characters are at the core of the narrative. 

The characters come before the mysteries of the island

When Lost was first aired on September 2004 on ABC, the show immediately became a breakout success. At the crossroads of different genres, Lost attracted every week millions of viewers who, for the majority of them, were keen on discovering the secrets of the tropical island. Indeed, a survey conducted in 2007 showed that most of the fans watched the show because they were eager to solve the riddles of the island. Thus, 91% of the respondents selected – among a list of proposed answers –  “I want to discover the answers to the island’s mysteries” as one important motivation to watch the show, while 28% chose it as the primary reason. On the other hand, 38% of the respondents chose “I am invested in the relationships that exist or could form between characters” as one important reason to watch Lost, while only 4% selected it as the primary motivation.

Yet, it seems that for the creators and producers of the show, the supernatural events taking place on the island were no more than an overall context in which the survivors of the plane crash were the real focus of the series. Carlton Cuse, a writer and executive producer on the show, stated:

“We want the characters to focus primarily on their relationships with each other. We always view the show as a character show with a mythology frosting over the top.”

In other words, according to the producers of Lost, it is the personal stories of the characters themselves and the connections between them that really made the show. However, as Roberta Pearson, the director of the Institute of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham, highlights, the characters are closely linked to what she refers to as the hermeneutic, meaning a method or principle of interpretation. Indeed, Pearson argues that “every element of the Lost characters is directly connected to the show’s central narrative enigmas”. In other words, the characters in Lost cannot be taken independently since they serve the overall narrative of the show. Jean Pierre Esquenazi, who teaches cinema at the University Paris III Sorbonne-Nouvelle, also suggests that the “local enigmas”, as he calls them, are almost always associated to characters hiding a secret. According to Esquenazi, this process allows the series to focus on different characters depending on the unfolding of the plot.

A large ensemble cast

Consequently, keeping the overriding objective of the series in mind, it is not surprising to notice that Lost features one of the largest ensemble cast in the history of TV shows. The series first focuses on the survivors of the plane crash of course. Among the 72 “Losties”, as they are often called by the fans, around 20 of them are recurrent characters throughout the six seasons of the show. Among them are Jack Sheppard [Matthew Fox], a successful neurosurgeon and leader of the survivors on the island, Kate Austen [Evangeline Lilly], a fugitive and Jack’s female counterpart, James “Sawyer” Ford [Josh Holloway], a con man presented as the antagonist of Jack, John Locke [Terry O’Quinn], a paraplegic who finds himself able to work once on the island, and Sayid Jarrah [Naveen Andrews], a former soldier who served as a communications officer in Iraq’s Special Republican Guard.

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Yet, the Losties are not alone on the island and another group of people referred to as “The Others” largely contributes to the narrative of the show. Most of “The Others” serve as antagonists to the main characters on the island. Thus, while Benjamin Linus [Michael Emerson] is presented as the ultimate villain during most of the show, Juliet Burke [Elizabeth Mitchell] is depicted as the female villain character in opposition to Kate. At the end of season 1 also, the survivors discover a hatch that initially belonged to the members of the Dharma Initiative, a research project. Moreover, the large ensemble cast is completed by off-island characters who, for some of them, will eventually join the main survivors on the island. In season 4 for instance, the main survivors of the plane crash come across a group of mercenaries as well as a science team who arrived by boat three months after the plane crash.

Consequently, the large ensemble cast enables the writers to focus on each character and develop their personal stories. In Lost, the survivors are therefore and obviously not there by chance. Indeed, each of them hides a secret, something in his or her past. The characters have something in common: they have flaws and wounds and the island acts like a second chance for them. Thus, by the season 1, the viewers of the show eventually understand why each survivor is on the island.

A double storyline

The structure of the series also suggests the character-driven focus of the show, an observation confirmed by Damon Lindelof, a creator, executive producer and head writer of the show:

“The mythology is very important and we don’t throw it away piecemeal. But at the same time, we approach every episode as, this is a Jack episode; we’re going to explain a little more why the guy needs to fix things all the time and let the island story support that obsession.”

Thus, each episode typically features a primary storyline about the island as well as a secondary storyline from another point in a character’s life in particular. Each episode – especially in season 1 – therefore gives an answer on why the character is on the island, why certain protagonists have certain skills, etc.

Consequently, characterization in Lost is strong. Throughout the seasons indeed, viewers are enable to provide a detailed biography of each of the protagonists and to explain why some characters have become what they are today thanks to elements on their childhood, family, past jobs, personal wounds… It is therefore not surprising to find a great amount of websites and blogs dedicated to the show and which provide thorough biographies on the main survivors. On Lostpedia for instance, one of the most popular websites devoted to the series, Internet users and fans can have access to extremely detailed biographies on the protagonists. Indeed, characterization in Lost is so developed that viewers of the show are able to build the most accurate portrait for each of the main survivors. If we have a look at Charlie Pace’s [Dominic Monaghan] page for instance, we are given plenty of information: full name, exact date of birth and death, names of his family members, profession of the parents and even the section of the plane he was seated in. The description of the characters on the website also includes the list of the episodes where he or she is the main focus in the sections “Centric episodes” and “Shared centric episodes”.

Active character development through flashbacks

Jack eventually discovers that Claire is his half-sister

Jack eventually discovers that Claire is his half-sister

Thus, what makes the ensemble cast so important and the characters so special in Lost? The answer probably lies in the connections that exist between the different protagonists. Indeed, in the season 2 DVD set, Carlton Cuse talked about the “theory of centrality”, developed by Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy, to illustrate the special links that bond the characters in Lost.

Karinthy “put forth the idea that anyone of us could name any one person among the earth’s billions of inhabitants and through, at most five acquaintances, connect that person back themselves”.

The links and personal connections between the characters – which they are often unaware of – art part of what the writers refer to as the “mythology of Lost. The characters in the series all come from different backgrounds, or even different countries and still, have already crossed paths in the past or even have family kinship. In season 6 for instance, Jack eventually discovers that Claire [Emilie de Ravin] and him have the same father, Christian Shepard [John Terry], making Claire his half sister.

One of the key techniques used by the writers to make deep and active character development is the use of flashbacks. Commenting on the process, J.J Abrams said:

“Flashbacks are not serving shock value, they’re serving characters and their history. To me the fun of the whole show is that it’s all about who the people are.”

Moreover, Randy Laist, a professor of English at Goodwin College in Connecticut, identified three different types of flashbacks. He first evokes the “determinist decision flashback” – the most frequent flashback used in the show – which aims at explaining a particular decision taken by a character on the island thanks to his past. Other flashbacks serve to demonstrate a change in the character, or “character growth” as Laist calls it, in comparison with his life before the plane crash. Finally, “reversed parallel flashbacks” are also regularly used in the show. In this type of flashback, the character remembers a past event related to something that is currently happening to him on the island. Yet, in the flashback, the character is on the opposite position. In “Solitary” (“Solitary”, s.1, e.9, November 17, 2004) for instance, Sayid Jarah remembers his life as a soldier when he had to torture a woman. However, in the island storyline, he is the one who is tortured by Danielle Rousseau [Mira Furlan], a French scientist who shipwrecked with her team on the island in 1988.

Connections between the “Losties”

Another element that allows the viewers to deepen their knowledge on a character is the use of  character connections. Thus, while flashbacks help the viewers to know more about a character, his past and psychology, crossovers enable the audience to discover the possible connections with other survivors and even with some of the members of “The Others” or the Dharma Initiative. Indeed, even before the plane crash, both major and minor characters have already crossed paths, often unknowingly and sometimes affecting each other’s lives. For the fans, Lost therefore became a giant jigsaw where the characters constituted the pieces that complemented each other. As a consequence, it came as no surprise that a number of websites dedicated to the show established character relationship charts with diagrams.

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A chart made by a fan to identify the connections between the Losties

Thus, throughout the six seasons of the show, viewers gradually found out the multiple links between the protagonists. In season 2 for instance (“Two for the road”, s.2, e.20, May 3, 2006), Ana Lucia [Michelle Rodriguez], one of the survivors, traveled to Australia with Jack’s father. In season 3 also (“The Brig”, s.3, e.19, May 2, 2007), viewers learnt that Locke’s father was the original con man that conned Sawyers’ parents when he was a child. In the same season (“Greatest Hits”, s.3, e.21, May 16, 2007), Charlie stopped a mugger from attacking Nadia [Andrea Gabriel], Sayid’s old love. Yet, while the characters are most of the time unaware of these connections, a number of Losties realized that they were not on the island by chance and discovered some of the links that bond the survivors of the plane crash together. In “Outlaws” (s.3, e.16, February 16n 2005) for instance, the flashback shows Sawyer in a bar drinking shot after shot. There he meets Christian, an older man who introduces himself as a surgeon and who tells him that his son, a surgeon also, hates him. He then adds that he is very proud of him but that he is too afraid and weak to call him and tells him that he loves him very much. On the island, Sawyer eventually finds out that the man he met in this bar, was none other than Jack’s father and decides to tell Jack everything his father did not.

Rivalries and conflicts

Furthermore, while we might think that they have nothing in common, a number of characters complement each other or act like triggers for others. Conflicts and rivalries are first at the core of the narrative of the show. To illustrate our point, we will have a look at the relationship between John Locke and Jack Shepard, two survivors who seem to be quite the opposite. On the one hand, John Locke represents faith and praises destiny as the ultimate reason why they all have crashed on the island. Of course, Locke’s name has obviously not been chosen by chance – just like all the other characters in the show – since he was called after the English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke. On the other hand, Jack, the spinal surgeon, is a man of science and only relies on logical and concrete facts to take his decisions. To him, their plane crash has nothing to do with faith and he does not believe in any kind of philosophical or “magical” approach as to their arrival on the island. At the end of season 1 (“Exodus”, s.1, e. 25, May 25, 2005), when Jack saved Locke from being killed from the mysterious black smoke, he stated: “I don’t believe in destiny”, to which Locke replied to: “Yes, you do. You just don’t know it yet.” In addition, Locke and Jack competed for the leadership of the group of survivors several times during the whole show.

Other “opponent couples” include two of the main female characters: Kate, one of the main survivors of the plane crash, and Juliet, part of “The Others”. The two women are first and obviously in conflict since they belong to the two opposing sides. Tensions between the two arise when Juliet, after having captured some of the Losties and infiltrated their camp, eventually joins the survivors’ side under the protection of Jack. The rivalry between the two women is then emphasized by their romantic relationships with Jack and then Sawyer, the different couples being referred to as “Skate” (Sawyer and Kate) or “Jacket” (Jack and Juliet) by the fans. Their rivalry is finally reinforced by their opposite physical appearances and personalities. On the one hand indeed, Kate is depicted as the tomboyish wild brunette while Juliet, on the other hand, embodies the blond, cold and pitiless scientist.

Complementary protagonist

Sun and Kate during Season 2.

Sun and Kate during Season 2.

While Lost presents numerous conflict and rivalries, the show also features numerous examples of complementary characters or protagonists who eventually help each other at some point. Kate especially, established solid links with Sun [Yunjin Kim], the Korean survivor who crashed on the island with her husband Jin [Daniel Dae Kim]. Indeed, Kate was the second person, after Michael [Harold Perrineau], to discover that Sun actually understood English (“Hearts and minds”, s.1, e.13, January 12, 2005). From that moment, Kate and Sun began to develop a closer relationship and support each other. When Sun believed herself to be pregnant for instance, she asked for Kate’s help. (“The Whole Truth”, s.2, e.16, March 22, 2006). Additionally, Kate also get closer to Claire since the moment she helped the young woman to deliver her baby (“Do no harm”, s.1, e.20, April 6, 2005). Kate became like an older sister for her since then and later, off the island, Kate raised Claire’s son, Aaron.

Furthermore, some characters act like triggers for others and enable a number of protagonists to confront themselves to their past, secrets and/or fears. In season 1 for instance (“The Moth”, s.1, e.7, November 3, 2004), when Locke discovers that Charlie is a heroin addict, he convinces him to fight against his addiction, giving Charlie three chances to ask him for his stash before getting it. Though Charlie asked for his drugs three times, he eventually throws it into the fire.

Similarly, in the same season (“Hearts and minds”, s.1, e.13, January 12, 2005), Locke helps Boone [Ian Somerhalder] to overcome his relationship with his sister, whom he is secretly in love with, by giving him hallucinations. On another level, Charlie and Desmond developed a special bond. Indeed, following different experiences with electromagnetism on the island, Desmond is regularly hit by premonitions and is capable of “mind travelling”. This is how Desmond learnt that Charlie was going to die soon and therefore repeated saved his life on the island (“Flashed Before Your Eyes”, s.3, e. 8, February, 14, 2007). Yet, Charlie eventually dies when he sacrifices himself to save Desmond and the other survivors (“Through the Looking Glass”, s.3, e.23, May 23, 2007).

To conclude, Lost is therefore and with no doubt, a series about characters before all. If the show encountered such a success – despite all the unanswered questions about the mysteries of the island – it is probably and therefore due to the deep developments of the Losties and their personal stories. Whether they crossed paths in the past or whether they are in total disagreement or get closer to each other on the island, characters in Lost eventually confront and/or complement each other.  This study on the series Lost could eventually lead us to wonder what makes viewers care about a character or in other words, what makes a good character.

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