Flanderisation. It’s a real thing. TV Tropes describes it (or rather its American form, Flanderization) as “The act of taking a single (often minor) action or trait of a character within a work and exaggerating it more and more over time until it completely consumes the character”. It comes from Ned Flanders in The Simpsons who began as a good, conscientious and church-going father to contrast Homer Simpson. Over time, his religiousness became obsessive and that was really all there was to Flanders, except for a few ‘diddlies’ thrown in.
Sometimes this is a very deliberate move. A character trait that was initially meant to be minor turns out to be much better for the character and so a decision is made to bring that to the fore and heighten it. That can be a really good thing. Sometimes it moves nicely in reverse – Fraiser began life in Cheers as an exaggerated, less-rounded version of who he would later become as a series regular.
But often Flanderisation happens slowly and unknowingly over time and that can reduce a character to one note.
I suspect a character is at most risk of this when there is a switch in writing staff. Because a new writer can watch the material and see the results but they haven’t experienced the process of getting the character to that point. They are seeing the surface (the artists reading this will recognise that same difficulty in replicating styles). They are looking for anything to help them pin down a character, to help them know that character. At this point, reducing a character to some clear bullet points can actually be an incredibly valuable tool for a writer. It isn’t a bad thing.
But it comes with the risk of Flanderisation. So you have to watch out for it, whether you are that writer coming on to a project or if you are working with a new writer on your show. Starting with the basics of that character is good. It helps you differentiate them and find their voice. But then you have to allow them to live. To have more dimensions.
As is common on my little blog, this post comes as a note to self. I am taking over a show defined by previous writers and it’s a gorgeous show with lovely, often subtle characters. It is a greater challenge to pin down more real characters. I have already caught the Flanderisation creeping in. But as with anything else, simply being aware of it is often all it takes to avoid it. A reminder post-it above the desk can make all the difference to a project.
One last little thought: we usually apply the term Flanderisation to characters but watch out for it in other elements too. Making something set in the ’80s and everyone has Flock Of Seagulls hair? You’ve just Flanderised the ’80s.