“Copper” and the Art of Conflict

This post contains no spoilers for the BBC America show, “Copper”. I also want to point out that the points I’m making apply to any well written TV show, movie or novel for that matter. There are many ways to tell a story. But Copper is timely for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that the season 2 premiere was last night.

About ten days ago I had nothing to do and couldn’t sleep. I had seen advertisements for this Copper show many times while watching other BBC America stuff, but didn’t know anything about it. When I saw the entire first season was son demand, I started watching it. I finished up the first season the night before the second season started last night. So suffice to say, my imagination has been quite stuffed with the characters and plots of that show lately. I’ve found that it has several components right off the bat for good dramatic writing.

For those of you not familiar with it, the show takes places mostly in a slum of New York City, in 1864. Known as the Five Points, this neighborhood was also the setting of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie, Gangs of New York. The Five Points, ( a real, historical place, by the way) was full of murders, sex, drugs, alcohol, corruption, and all sorts of unpleasant things. Yet even in such a place, there was law enforcement. In Copper, it’s represented by Kevin “Corky” Corcoran.

Corcoran is a Civil War veteran who returns home to the Five Points after being discharged to find his wife is missing, and his child has recently been murdered. (That’s not a spoiler, you know this in the first five minutes.) Corky, therefore, is a bit broken, for lack of a better term. He tries to do good in his capacity as a Detective, and he accomplishes this. But he’s not beyond smashing a few heads together in order to do it. But not too many heads, and not the wrong ones.

Without even doing anything yet, this protagonist is full of conflict in his own right. You have his struggle to do good competing with his bitterness and anger over what has happened.

But it doesn’t stop with him. Along the way you have his fellow detectives. You have his whore. (This is 1864 after all.) His superior officer. His wealthy, uptown friend. An orphan in need. He interacts with all of these people as they either help, hinder, (or sometimes both) his mission(s). Why both? Because every single other one of the characters in Copper is also desperate to obtain something. As they pursue their own maguffins, they inevitably get in each other’s way…and are often at cross purposes with one another.

Yet another lesson we can take from this show…a group of characters that are all together, yet each pursuing their own mission..some of which will derail the mission of the others. Thus we have characters that can be allies in the open, and secret enemies, or vice-verca. The need for plotting without revealing is crucial to much of what happens in Copper, and we writers can take a lot from that sort of plotting.

Then there is the setting. Five Points. It’s crowded, stinking, dilapidated. You can barely whisper without it affecting someone else. So it’s a pressure cooker…and another ideal type of place to give birth to a lot of drama. Anything can happen at any moment to unleash hell all over town and beyond. Some people want hell, some of them do not.

So we have a conflicted protagonist at sometimes cross purposes with equally compelling supporting characters in a high pressure setting. in the right hands, a goldmine of stories and drama. One we can all take a few lessons from.

Now not every work of fiction needs violence or sex, of course. I don’t even agree that every story even needs an obvious conflict or villain. (I know this puts  me in the minority.) But all writers of stories in any medium can learn from Copper. Even if you fiction doesn’t have quite so many irons in its fire, the built in, you could do far worse than starting character driven story lines born of an intrinsically dramatic setting.

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