June 11th, 2018

5 Key Writing Lessons from "The Americans"

Piper Bayard of Bayard & Holmes

The Americans, a show about undercover Soviet agents posing as Americans in the DC area during the Cold War, teaches writers solid lessons in both what it gets wrong, and what it gets right.

Since I write espionage nonfiction and fiction and partner with a senior member of the Intelligence Community, let’s look at this from the espionage angle first.

Philip (Mischa) and Elizabeth (Nadezhda) Jennings, played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, are the one-stop shop for all Soviet espionage needs. They run multiple operations at a time and work as everything from honeypots to assassins to grave robbers, all the while receiving frequent phone calls from “The Center” at home, where they live with their two children. Their legends have legends, and they slip in and out of various roles and disguises as if there’s no chance of ever running into their kids’ teachers at the grocery store. Philip pops in and out of a wig and facial hair so adeptly that the poor woman he dupes into a fake marriage doesn’t notice it’s not real—either the facial hair or the marriage. The Jennings even pull their daughter into the “family business.”

It’s a fun and fascinating show. It has virtually no basis in reality.

Oh, the Soviets had honeypots, assassins, thieves, surveillance teams, sleeper agents, etc. The Russians still do. But even the Russians don’t expect their spies to be jacks-of-all-trades.

Real Russians planted into American society under deep cover for the long term are serious investments, both financially and in terms of personnel. These high-value operatives would never be used for such a variety of mundane tasks as assassinations, running agents, robbing laboratories, etc. And the thirty-second disguise that fools a spouse? Hollywood is once again holding out on the government if they’ve got that one.

You’d never know it was me, right?

From an espionage standpoint, though, The Americans does nail more than a few things, but I’ll limit myself to two.

First, Philip and Elizabeth are friendly and likeable.

That is realistic. For example, a foreign-born American traitor was caught red-handed selling classified missile technology to an enemy. I can’t legally publish his name, so I’ll call him “Rat-bastard” for our purposes. After Rat-bastard was arrested, one of the most common refrains from his co-workers was, “He can’t be a spy. He came to my barbecues.” They were completely floored, and to this day, many of them are convinced the CIA and FBI just didn’t have enough to do that week, so they picked on Rat-bastard.

Foreign spies can be charming. The charming ones are far more successful than anti-social brutes named “Boris.” So if you’re writing spies that interact with the enemy undercover, give them the ability to be deadly charming . . . so to speak.

A second thing the series gets right about the characters is their brutality.

The Soviets were ruthless. They blew up busloads of school children, slaughtered towns, and even had a special branch of the KGB to take out their own agents. And though Philip and Elizabeth rack up more brutality mileage than the vast majority of real life Soviet agents did, the quality of their savagery in the series is valid. No need to hold back when writing Russians and violence. For an extra boost of reality, throw in plenty of collateral damage.

Though The Americans is not a documentary on Soviet spies, it’s a fantastic example of characters that generate passionate devotees. Here are a few reasons why:

1. Each Character is the Hero of Their Own Story

There is an idea that’s been kicked around on record since 1812 . . . Every person is the hero of their own story—you, me, the milkman, the serial killer, the corrupt politician, the saint, etc. The Americans is true to this idea with each of its characters.

Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are true believers—patriots who have committed their bodies, hearts, souls, and careers to the fight against that perceived threat. Their antagonist, FBI Special Agent Stan Beeman, is equally committed to hunting down Soviet agents on our shores. Even minor characters, such as the Jennings' daughter Paige and Soviet spy Oleg Burov, are devoted to their perception that they are changing the world for the better with their actions. They are each on their Hero’s Journey.

Since each of our readers is on their own Hero’s Journey, they sympathize with characters that are, as well, even when those characters are antagonists and anti-heroes. Every character in The Americans fits that bill.

2. Each Character has a Definable Goal

When characters have solid goals, those goals define their choices and actions, leading to logical plot lines and natural conflict.

In The Americans, Philip and Elizabeth share the goal of protecting their country, and they do so by spying. It leads them to commit all manner of murder, theft, seduction, deceit, and espionage. These actions put them in natural conflict with FBI Agent Stan Beeman, whose goal is to catch Soviet spies in order to protect the United States. Stan’s goal moves him to have an affair with a Soviet agent, kill another Soviet agent in revenge, and befriend a third one against his official orders. His actions, in their turn, lead to natural conflict with the Soviets, his own co-workers, and his family.

Well-defined goals shepherd our characters’ actions and decisions, and those actions and decisions create natural conflict and drive the plot forward.

3. Nobody’s Perfect

Characters that have no flaws that cause them to make mistakes are called caricatures. Paradoxically, our characters’ greatest flaws are often also their greatest strengths.

In The Americans, Philip is a rock star of a Soviet agent because of his capacity for self-awareness. He is brilliant at getting inside his target’s head, whether it’s his FBI agent neighbor, a middle-aged secretary he’s “courting,” or a teenage girl whose father is a high-level CIA officer. This self-awareness is also his fatal flaw. While he uses it for insight into his targets’ vulnerabilities, in the end, it’s this ability to question himself, his motives, and his country that lead him to a meeting where his cover is blown. His conscience both makes him and breaks him.

Soviet rock star Elizabeth’s great strength, as well as her undoing, is her loyalty to her country and her mission. In the name of loyalty, she performs every task with sociopathic dedication, whether it’s seducing and entrapping the enemies of her state or killing innocents who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It even leads her to offer up her own daughter on the altar of duty. In the end, it is this blind devotion that gets her caught up in a rogue political web. However, it is this same loyalty to her country that eventually causes her to question her orders and turn on her handler.

With our characters as in real life, every strength is a weakness when taken too far. When we take our characters to the brink of their own capacities, we keep our readers enthralled.

4. The Characters have Arcs

There is a saying . . . The person who is the same at forty as they were at thirty has wasted ten years. That could be modified to apply to characters. The character that is the same on Page 300 as they were on Page 1 has wasted 300 pages. The Americans doesn’t waste any “pages.”

We’ll look at Philip for an example. In the beginning, Philip is a man who married a stranger and relocated to a foreign land to have children with her and establish a life under the eyes of their enemies. He is devoted to carrying out his orders from The Center with complete professionalism and dedication. But Philip changes over the years. He becomes involved in EST, which stimulates his self-reflection. He forges a close friendship with his FBI agent neighbor. He sees his son grow into a life and opportunities he never would have had in the Soviet Union, and he genuinely falls in love with Elizabeth. He steps back from being a Soviet spy and devotes himself to his travel agency. In essence, he arrives a Soviet and becomes an American. It’s this transformation that ultimately allows him to prevail over his enemy in the end.

5. Everyone Suffers the Consequences of their Actions

As the Mark Knopfler says in his song “Everybody Pays,” “Everybody has to leave some blood here on the floor.” Everyone in The Americans—good guys and bad guys—pays the price of their choices and actions.

There is something inside we mortals that cries out for justice. We rarely get that justice in real life, so we look to stories to fulfill our need to believe that someday, somewhere, there will be a just world. The Americans does not disappoint.

I can’t give examples without blowing the finale for those who haven’t seen it, so I’ll leave it at this . . . People are messy. Life is messy. Real life is not just. When we reflect that steaming mess of humanity in our writing, letting our characters be punished and rewarded in fair measure according to their sins and virtues, we satisfy our readers’ need to believe that someday, somewhere out there, we will all live in a just world.

And isn’t that why we read? So that we can keep the dream alive?

Do you have any questions about the espionage truth and fiction of The Americans? Did you see the series? If so, what kept you coming back?

For more on Soviet agents and other aspects of espionage, see Spycraft: Essentials by Bayard & Holmes, available now at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

 

About Bayard and Holmes

Piper Bayard is an author and a recovering attorney. Jay Holmes is a forty-five-year veteran of the military and intelligence communities. Piper is the public face of their partnership. Together, Bayard & Holmes write espionage fiction and nonfiction.

To follow Bayard & Holmes, sign up for the Bayard & Holmes Covert Briefing, or find them at their site, Bayard & Holmes. You may contact them in blog comments at their site, on Twitter at @piperbayard, on Facebook at Bayard & Holmes, or by email at BH@bayardandholmes.com.

25 responses to “5 Key Writing Lessons from "The Americans"”

  1. Oh this was so much fun to read! Yes,I binge-watched the first few years and then continued to watch and be enthralled each year. It was one of my favorite shows because it was different, exciting, and the hook- undercover neighbors! Interesting concundrum that I could root for two characters that did such awful things. Elizabeth and the Mary Kay lady- horrible. Cutting up a woman’s body...yikes. But it was great storytelling- as you explained so well. I had thought that maybe the collapse of the Soviet empire would factor in, but it really didn’t. Thank you for being positive about a tv show. I often read writer’s comments on social media- how tv is a waste of time. But it isn’t!

    • Piper Bayard says:

      I have also marveled at how I could be rooting for Soviet spies that did horrific things. Brilliant characters to engender so much sympathy. And I always love a good TV show. They are hard to find, but when I do, I learn so much from them.

  2. carrienichols says:

    I enjoyed reading this post. I haven't watched this show but will definitely have to check it out.

  3. Great article, with some wonderful insights about this program. As a writer, I marveled at how the writers of this show had me rooting for the soviets most of time. Must've been the likability factor 🙂 Thanks for an insightful post.

    • Piper Bayard says:

      So glad you enjoyed it. I know I kept seeing the potential Americans in them, particularly Philip. The one I was really rooting for, though, was Oleg. He seemed like the most decent guy on the show.

  4. Jenny Hansen says:

    See, now I have to watch this show. I can avoid most TV, but the spy neighbors are too intriguing to pass up! Thank you (I think). And I am LOVING Spycraft Essentials.

  5. LivRancourt says:

    I've been brainstorming a story idea that's basically a 1960s spy-vs-spy, and your post is both timely and very helpful. I'll be digging into Spycraft Essentials soon. Thanks!

  6. Julie Glover says:

    I love hearing the differences between real-spook world and fiction-spook world. I've seen this with other issues (like the legal world where I used to work—no, a trial never happens that fast, and half of what lawyers get to say on TV would be overruled), but I trust y'all entirely to give the scoop on spycraft. Can't wait to get the book!

    • Piper Bayard says:

      I can't bring myself to watch lawyer shows for that reason. Although I did LOVE Denny Crane. The Shat did a brilliant job of playing himself in that show. Hope you enjoy the book. 🙂

  7. Kathy O. says:

    I was an avid viewer of The Americans, and torn till the end between hating and loving Elizabeth and Phillip, and I loved the curve-ball of living next to FBI agent Stan. That's what kept me coming back, never knowing if the hour was to be a love or hate episode. There was enough that was great to help me overlook its faults. Excellent post. Thank you!

  8. Piper Bayard says:

    Oops. Meant that to go up a bit. Sorry, Jen.

  9. jayjhicks says:

    A lesson in believability. A lesson in arc. A lesson in what readers want and why. Thank you.

  10. Laura Drake says:

    Every hero stars in their own story - I love that. It's the perfect explanation of why good people do bad things...a subject I'm endlessly fascinated by. Thanks, Piper.

  11. Fae Rowen says:

    I loved the series. Yes, the characters and the stories were brutal. But I didn't miss an episode—I watched in "real time" every week. Thank you for using the series to point out the "Big Five" good writing lessons.

  12. […] Reid delves into the sticky area of white folks writing characters of color, and Piper Bayard gives 5 writing lessons about characters from The Americans. K. M. Weiland lays out 5 steps to writing great character chemistry, while Janice Hardy asks: how […]

  13. dholcomb1 says:

    That's pretty cool

  14. […] 5 Key Writing Lessons from “The Americans” […]

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