Archives for : Nikita

Things Nikita Taught Me About Writing

There are two kinds of people in this world. People who find this hot and liars.

There are two kinds of people in this world. People who find this hot and liars.

First things first: Happy New Year!

This past Friday, I unfortunately had to say goodbye to one of my absolute favorite television shows. Nikita is a spy thriller show on the CW, and one of the only good things on that entire channel. It’s by no stretch perfect, as I will elaborate on in just a moment, but it was one of the most atypical shows on that particular network. The CW typically panders to the teenage girl demographic, and Nikita was a fresh breath of air for all four seasons. I’d like to honor its memory by discussing the things in the show that helped me as a writer.

Massive spoilers ahead. Ye be warned.

Beware the Mary Sue. For the non-writers out there, a “Mary Sue” is an original character who is poorly written and exemplifies traits of an inexperienced writer who doesn’t understand how to make a character three dimensional. Mary Sue characters are often the most beautiful, funniest, quirkiest, smartest, and powerful among any of the people around them. They are written like goddesses and most of the time, the other characters either irrationally hate them in order to serve as a foil for how “awesome” they are, or everyone loves them and constantly praises them. This term is thrown around too often in the fiction and fanfiction world, especially if said character is based on the author, but it’s still an important mainstay in the writing world for a reason.

Nikita managed to avert the Mary Sue character with one character and then embodied it with another. Here’s the skinny, in case you skipped the 1990 original film (La Femme Nikita by Luc Besson) that the show is loosely based on: Nikita Mears was a drug addict who killed a cop and was sentenced to death. However, after her faked lethal injection, she woke up in an underground facility in the hands of a covert government agency called Division, headed by Percy, Amanda, and Michael, respectively. They take felons with the death sentence, rehabilitate them, and turn them into undercover spies and assassins to do the U.S. government’s dirty work off the books. After getting clean, Nikita quickly became Division’s best agent, but she eventually fell in love with a guy named Daniel. Relationships with outsiders are forbidden, so Division killed Daniel and Nikita broke out and swore revenge. She recruits a young girl named Alexandra Udinov to infiltrate Division and help her tear it to the ground.

Nikita has all the makings of a Mary Sue—an absurd wealth of beauty, a sharp tactical mind, bad ass martial arts skills, fluency in several languages, and genuinely a good heart—but the show recognized what makes a great character and instead made her three dimensional. For instance, Nikita’s biggest character flaw is that she has a serious guilt complex. There have been plenty of missions she failed or battles she lost because she is so obsessed with saving everyone that even one loss is beyond her comprehension. She also has deep rooted self-esteem issues brought on by the darkness inside her that Division cultivated and brought out of her in her earlier years. The reason why she’s such a fantastic leading lady is that she often questions her own actions, has doubts and fears, and makes mistakes that affect herself and her team. She is a loner, but she also falls in love with the second-in-command at Division, Michael, and spends the entire first season trying to get him to see the error of his ways. Nikita is self-sacrificing to a fault and the show does a wonderful job showing the repercussions of making decisions for other people instead of trusting them.

On the other hand, Alex is the biggest Mary Sue I’ve seen on television in ages. Her backstory reeks of bad writing. For instance, her father was a Russian arms dealer and head of a multimillion dollar company. Division stormed his manor to kill him and his family, but Nikita couldn’t bring herself to shoot Alex in cold blood so she saved her and ran away from Division. Alex constantly screws up missions in the first season, but she always avoids “cancellation” (which is what Division does if an agent doesn’t get with the program) through incredibly stupid, contrived situations rather than using her own smarts or skills. In the second season, she gets even dumber and works with Division to hunt Nikita because she found out Nikita killed her father before saving her life. She claims that she’s using Division instead of the other way around and continues playing right into their schemes up until the very end of the season where she gets some sense knocked into her. Then she gets brainwashed by Amanda, Division’s psychotic psychiatric assessment agent, and becomes so obsessed with “freeing” the agents at Division that she sabotages Nikita’s plans, shoots a supporting character and nearly kills him, incites a mutiny, and gets her own love interest killed. She is everything that Nikita is not—incapable, snotty, selfish, short-sighted, and constantly getting everyone else in trouble.

Nikita has its fair share of problems, but the differences between Nikita and Alex are what leave the biggest impression on me from a writing standpoint. It’s very easy to lose grip on a grounded character and create a Mary Sue. Writers do it all the time. The key is balancing out the good with the bad. Every character has traits that make them worthwhile, and traits that make you want to smash their head against a concrete wall. They need to have realistic faults and shortcomings. They need to be human and mess up and work hard to atone for their sins. Writers tend to put some characters on pedestals out of habit and love of their work, but if we want people to enjoy them, we have to bump them off it.

Understand the scope and duration of your storylines. One of the absolute hardest things about writing the final novel in my Black Parade series is knowing the limitations of the story. Nikita has definitely struggled with this in the past.

For instance, the first two seasons are by far the strongest because they have an insidious main villain (Percy), a steamy love affair with all kinds of Dating Catwoman vibes (Michael and Nikita), a lovable team of ass-kicking misfits (Birkhoff, Ryan, Nikita, Owen, Sean, and Michael, and I don’t count Alex because she sucks), and a pretty straightforward plot. Season three falls apart after the death of Percy because while the old bastard was starting to get tiresome (he had a very Lex Luthor way of getting out of every single scrape by talking his way out), Amanda is just not main villain material. She’s far too one-note and she was incapable of seeing the big picture the way that Percy did when he ran Division. He knew exactly how to manipulate the agents and how to make them think they were helping their country when they were really just serving his needs.

The idea that the show did well with in the third season was that Division could be used for good instead of evil, and the team struggled with that from start to finish. However, the story wore thin as the mutiny and the brainwashing and Amanda’s creepy obsession with Nikita began to take over. The end of season three had some pretty soap opera level types of drama, especially the plotline with Michael’s bionic hand, and any of the realism the show used to have dried up. By the time season four hit, it was pretty clear that the series had run out of gas.

Pacing is vital to a good book. One has to know how to intersperse action, dialogue, inner conflict, and other story elements in a way that keeps the audience’s attention. This is why a lot of writers suggest outlining the novel before one starts it because it can help keep the reins firmly in the author’s grasp. It’s easy to slip off into a tangent with your story if you don’t have all the details. You don’t want your story to be derivative, so it’s important to explore all the limitations of your world and then decide how to trail blaze.

Choose your villain carefully. Percy is one of the best TV villains I’ve seen in years. He’s got all the calm, cool demeanor of Lex Luthor with the vicious killing streak of Darkseid. Even though Nikita constantly foiled his plans, he always found a way to profit off of his losses. He could talk his way out of damn near anything, and he also managed to stay detached from his emotions, meaning he had no weak points. He was such a slimy bastard that I’m sure we were all cheering when Nikita dropped his ass down that silo to plummet to his death.

However, Amanda’s shift into the main villain seat was misguided, in my opinion. Amanda shifted between second in command and third in command while Percy was still running Division, and it worked because of her skill set. She knew how to influence the recruits and get what she wanted out of them with persuasion, and occasionally, force. However, she got too ambitious and turned on Percy because of her own massive ego. I appreciate that the show didn’t want Percy to be the source of conflict for the entire show’s run, but Amanda didn’t have the panache to pull it off. She was certainly a cold hearted bitch with no remorse and no morals, but she didn’t know how to truly run Division effectively.

I believe a commonly used quote in the writing world is that “every villain is a hero in their own story.” Villains need to get beneath our skin. We need to hate them or fear them at the end of the day. Sometimes all one needs is a one note villain with an end goal of world domination, but the better villains are the ones who have at least one redeeming quality. Percy and Amanda didn’t have those, but plenty of the antagonists in Nikita’s world did. After all, a hero is only as good as their evil counterpart. If one fleshes out the protagonist, one needs to flesh out the antagonist. However, Nikita did do something I enjoyed—they didn’t expose anything about Percy on a real level. We didn’t find out his last name or his childhood. He was just an imposing asshole and that worked because it kept the mystery. Less is more with villains like him, and this show understood that very well.

Make sure your supporting cast is actually supportive. Team Nikita is pretty awesome, all things considered. You have Birkhoff, aka Nerd, who heads up all the technological aspects; Ryan, who handles deployment of the agents and knows how to dig through the government for answers; Sean, who is basically extra muscle; Michael, who is the tactical genius leader guy and Nikita’s moral center; Alex, who is Nikita’s lesser half but still helps out despite being a massive idiot. This brings me to Owen—an agent whose job was to clean up messes and get rid of trace evidence after certain assassinations. Owen had been put on a regiment of rare vitamins and substances that made him faster and stronger than the average bear, but then he got in trouble and defected after Division killed his girlfriend. Nikita later recruits him because of her savior complex, to my complete exasperation.

The problem with Owen is that he doesn’t really pull his weight. The other members of Team Nikita have solid, set purposes and roles. They all do something that is needed on their missions. Owen, however, isn’t much use most of the time. He’s irrational, hot-headed, impulsive, and smug. He rarely thinks ahead and without the regimen, he was no longer super-strong or fast. He was by far the most extraneous character on the show. It seems as if he was brought in as a regular in order to cause tension (at one point, he seemed to take a shine to Nikita while she and Michael were having relationship issues), but at the end of the day, you could remove him entirely and not much would change.

This can sometimes happen in stories with ensemble casts. Authors tend to want to show a diverse spread of characters with their own quirks. Sometimes they can get so wrapped up a character’s personality that they forget to actually make them relevant to the plot. It’s easy enough to fix—often times, one can combine two characters into one, or remove the character entirely and just save them for another story. Owen is a constant reminder to always make sure to tie each character into the plot with their own thread. Otherwise, what are they there for?

I’m honestly in mourning for Nikita. While they went out on a fantastic finale, it’s hard to see it go when there are so few unique shows out there. Here’s to you, Nikita. Thanks for the memories.