On the face of it, the show’s popularity makes no sense. 1912? What was happening in 1912? Oh yeah, the Titanic, but what else?
Why is Downton Abbey getting such incredible reviews? Why has it won six Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe? Why has it become the best-selling DVD box set on Amazon?
In a word, it’s story. Downton Abbey is packed full of story.
And what does “story” mean, precisely?
Story is characters in conflict. Characters with impossible dreams. Characters willing to do anything to reach their dreams.
Let’s look at the characters of Downton Abbey and their impossible dreams.
Lady Mary Crawley is young and beautiful, the eldest daughter of the Earl of Grantham. As the story [Season 1] begins, her fiance has just died on the Titanic. Mary’s problem is that she doesn’t have a problem with that. She didn’t much love the guy, even though she was engaged to him.
Why would any girl agree to marry a guy she didn’t love? Simple. She was pushed into it. Mary is the oldest of three daughters, but there aren’t any sons in the Crawley family.
Unfortunately, the estate and the title and most of the family money have been “entailed,” meaning that they will be inherited by the nearest male relative, not by Mary.
This is massively unfair, but the family has hoped to make it less unfair by pushing Mary into marrying the heir. Mary has gone along with this, until now. Not happily, but she’s gone along.
Now the heir is dead and Mary doesn’t feel sad about him. The only thing she feels sad about is that she doesn’t feel sad.
Something is deeply wrong with Mary. She knows what it is. She has no purpose in life. As the story begins, her main purpose is to find her purpose.
Mary wants to make her own decisions in life. And that’s impossible. Women in her position don’t make decisions. They have their decisions made for them.
With the loss of her unwanted fiance, something snaps in Mary. From now on, she isn’t going to have decisions foisted upon her. She’s going to make her own decisions.
If the only decisions Mary has power to make are bad ones, then by heavens, she’ll make horrible, wretched, idiotic decisions. But she will choose her own way in life. She will. Starting now.
The news of the Titanic arrives on the same day that the new valet, John Bates, arrives to begin his duties. Bates is an old Army friend of Lord Grantham, and lately some shrapnel has shifted in his knee, giving him a serious limp. But nobody knows about his injury until he arrives to begin work.
Unfortunately, Downton Abbey has zillions of stairs and no elevators. How can Bates manage his duties when he can’t carry things even on level ground? Will Lord Grantham have to get rid of his new valet?
Bates is one of the show’s most likable characters. He never complains. Never feels sorry for himself. Never tells anyone about the failings of the other servants. He’s honest and kind and decent. All he wants is to have a job, and that is apparently the one thing he’s going to be denied.
Bates has a rival. The head footman, Thomas, is young, strong, and handsome, and he wants the job of valet.
Thomas has a massive chip on his shoulder because he’s “different” — which is his term for the fact that he’s gay. In 1912, that’s a serious problem.
Thomas will do whatever it takes to get the job of valet, and if he has to lie and cheat to get Bates removed, no problem. But whether he gets the job or not, Thomas will never be happy. Because he’s “different.”
Mary’s mother is Cora, originally from an American family, now a middle-aged English aristocrat. Cora desperately wants to get her three daughters married off well to nice men. Now that the heir is dead, it’s time to reopen the question of that wretched entail. Why can’t it be broken?
Cora repeatedly asks her husband to get the family lawyer to break the entail. And he repeatedly refuses, claiming that it can’t be done. Cora strikes up an alliance with her mother-in-law, Violet, who also thinks that the best course is to break the entail.
Violet is an acid-tongued old woman who gets most of the funniest lines of dialogue in the series. Violet wants the same thing Cora wants — to get the daughters married off, and most especially to see Mary keep the family fortune. But neither Violet nor Cora can persuade Lord Grantham to try to break the entail.
Why won’t Lord Grantham at least try? He certainly loves his daughter Mary, and wants to see her married well and prosperous. But breaking the entail would probably not succeed, he’s convinced. Mary might get the money, but never the estate.
Lord Grantham has poured his entire life into maintaining the estate. He married Cora for her money because it would enable him to keep the estate. Now how can he separate the estate from the money? The estate would die, and he can’t tolerate that.
For Lord Grantham, the solution is simple. Let Mary marry the new heir. That would be young Matthew Crawley, a third cousin once removed. He’s a handsomeguy, although (gack) he’s a lawyer. But even lawyers can often be trained.
Lord Grantham’s plan is to train young Matthew to be the new Earl. And to convince Mary to marry him. Why won’t Mary do what she’s told? It’s the obviously right thing. Lord Grantham loves Mary, but she can be so infuriating sometimes.
Matthew’s certainly a nice guy, handsome, kind, honest. If Mary didn’t feel forced to marry him, she’d probably be interested. But Mary’s a stubborn cuss, and she won’t be pushed.
So Matthew has no chance, even before she meets him. Matthew has no chance, even though he falls in love with her on sight. Matthew would do anything to convince her to marry him. But nothing is enough. He can’t have her, plain and simple.
There’s enough so far to make a movie, but not a TV series. There has to be more, much more. And there is. Practically every other character has something they desperately want–and can’t have.
Edith, the homely second daughter of Lord and Lady Grantham, would love to have a husband. But every time she sets her cap for a man, her beautiful older sister Mary steps in and flirts with him. Edith has no chance for a man and she hates Mary. She’d do anything to ruin Mary’s life. Anything.
Sybil, the youngest daughter, is interested in politics and women’s rights. But what chance does she have to do anything that matters? She’s been educated by a governess, which means she’s learned nothing. She can’t do anything, because it’s not ALLOWED, and that drives her crazy.Anna, the head housemaid, is a thirty-something woman, not quite pretty, not quite plain. She’s sweet and kind and she’s naturally attracted to the new valet, Mr. Bates. But Bates has some dark secrets in his past, things he can’t talk about.
Anna knows instinctively that Bates is protecting somebody. But Mr. Bates won’t talk about it, and until he does, Anna’s love is going unrequited.
Gwen, another housemaid, isn’t happy with her life in service. She’s been taking a course in typing and shorthand and would love to get a job as a secretary.
But nobody will hire a housemaid with no experience. Gwen has no chance to pursue her dreams. Unless Sybil gives her a hand, and even then, the odds are long.
Cora’s maid, Sarah O’Brien, is a bitter woman who secretly despises her employers but adopts a fawning attitude when they’re around. She’s in league with Thomas to make life miserable for Mr. Bates, and incidentally Anna. For no good reason. It’s not clear what drives O’Brien, but her goal is clear — to make everyone else miserable. She’s extremely good at that.
The housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, is a quiet soul, but she secretly wonders what her life would have been like if she’d married the farmer who asked her many years ago.
But she’ll never know, will she? Unless . . . she gets a second chance at love. Will she get that chance? Would she take it?
The second footman, William, is a young man fresh off the farm. He means well, but he’s none too bright, and the highest ambition he can imagine is to rise to the position of first footman.
William has a thing for the kitchen maid, Daisy, and he’d be ever so happy if only she would notice him.
Daisy is a young girl from a miserable background. If her self esteem got any lower, it would be underground.
Daisy is in love with the footman Thomas, who rarely gives her the time of day. Thomas only ever pays attention to Daisy because he knows it hurts William.
Daisy is too naive to realize that Thomas is never going to love her because he’s just not interested in women.
Mrs. Patmore, the cook, is slowly losing her eyesight. She’s a kind soul, but she thinks she’ll be sacked if anyone learns she can hardly see. Mrs. Patmore only wants to keep her job, and she’s terrified, so she takes out her frustrations on Daisy.
The butler, Mr. Carson, runs the household and supervises all the other servants. It’s a constant challenge. Mr. Bates can’t carry. Thomas is a conniving SOB, but you can’t pin anything on him. O’Brien is cruel and arrogant to the servants, but she’s always sweetness and light around her employers, so there’s no getting rid of her.
Mr. Carson feels that the honor of Downton Abbey rests on his shoulders. It’s a heavy responsibility. Carson desperately wants to maintain tradition, but that’s impossible. The world is changing and soon it’s going to be unrecognizable.
Butlers should have no favorites, but Carson loves Mary like his own daughter and he’d do anything to see her happily married.
Mr. Carson has a secret from his past, and it would kill him if anyone knew. But the only person who knows his secret lives far away. For the moment.
But I’ve covered enough to make it clear what drives Downton Abbey. Here is the secret that will drive your own fiction to success, if you let it:
Every character in Downton Abbey behaves as if he or she were the hero of the story. Each one desperately wants something. Something he can’t have. Something she will do almost anything to get.
When you write your novel, it’s tempting to bring in characters solely to serve the story of your
protagonist. Characters who are there merely to play the role of Sidekick or Villain or Love Interest or Humorous Relief or whatever. Characters without their own hopes and dreams.
That is the road to second-rate fiction.
Give each character a dream. Preferably an impossible dream. Something your character will do anything to get.
When a person will do anything to get what they want, then anything can happen.
That’s why Downton Abbey rocks. That’s what will make your story rock too.