Character Study: Sarah Manning from Orphan Black (and, yes, a hero IS a special snowflake)

I first learned of Orphan Black when it was just an obscure, homegrown program on Canada’s Space Channel.

And in my customary inability to pick a winning horse, dismissed it without watching a single episode, deeming it just another sci-fi show on Space – a network whose programming quality, let’s be honest, varies.

But recently, my blog-buddy Eric J. Baker wrote about Orphan Black, recommending everyone give it a try.  Plus, with the second season having recently started, news of Orphan Black and its success was everywhere in Canadian entertainment news.

So, I decided I’d watch a bit, and thus far am halfway through season 1.

For the uninitiated, Orphan Black centers on main character Sarah Manning, a streetwise, punk-styled, criminal, orphan, and former foster-child who’s been to the wrong side of the tracks and on the wrong side of the law, yet, by the grace of God and her own dogged resilience, has managed to keep herself from serious harm or punishment for her actions.

The show begins with Sarah returning to her hometown in hopes of reclaiming her young daughter, only to gradually discover the existence of a number of different women who, despite different hairstyles, professions, and nationalities, all resemble her.

What’s more, someone seems to be trying to kill all the clones, even as a group of them – Sarah included – attempt to discover where they all came from.

One not of a kind

In a show about clones, with a single actress playing characters who are all different versions of the same one girl (the depressed detective version, the uptight soccer mom version, the adorkable scientist version, the mysterious German version, to name a few up to this point), one might think it difficult to choose a favourite.

However, Sarah herself became my immediate favourite, largely due to her come-hell-or-high-water ability to impersonate the other clones.

Routinely, the viewer is shown Sarah doing whatever it takes to either pass herself off as her lookalike or extricate herself from the situation in a convincing manner.

Be it drinking liquid soap to make herself vomit, poring over the events of a police hearing like one studies the MCAT to stand trial as the accused, manipulating others into telling her things she should already know, initiating a round of wild sex, or pretending to be a rocker, party chick to explain a hotel room that’s been trashed by unknown pursuers, Sarah is quick-witted, resourceful, and a joy to watch in action.

My favourite impersonation to date was the one involving the trashed hotel room.  In knowing she has to act like the German clone, Sarah arms herself with a wide-brimmed hat and big, fashion sunglasses borrowed from her flamboyant foster-brother, Felix, and is shown working out her mannerisms and accent as she approaches the hotel.

Sarah's explanation for the trashed hotel room.

Sarah’s explanation for the trashed hotel room.

At first, it seems Sarah won’t be able to pull it off, especially when she flees from the front desk staff who try to confront her, hightailing it to the hotel room to search for the item she was sent to recover.

However, when the hotel staff pound on the door demanding to speak to her, Sarah is forced to play the role.  She lowers her sunglasses, and, assuming the most world-weary, glam European attitude possible, says, “Ja?”

Simply the best

As a person, I always appreciate characters who can seamlessly fit themselves into any circumstance alongside others, for I’m not always so seamless in my own life, and often feel the need to pretend to be someone else to navigate situations effectively – something I’ve over the years come to refer to as pulling a rabbit out of my hat.

As a writer, I likewise appreciate Sarah because, at her core, she’s observant, adaptable, and thinks on her feet – qualities that made her an effective con and thus far have continued to serve her well in this new predicament.

She’s a reminder that all main characters require a special skill.

As writers, we’re often so worried about ensuring our protagonist is flawed and relatable and any old Joe/Jane rather than the dreaded Mary Sue/Gary Stu, it’s easy to forget that stories are contrived, characters aren’t actual people, and that a protagonist is meant to be unique in some way.

According to the mythic Hero’s Journey, as elucidated by Joseph Campbell and further developed by Christopher Vogler, the archetypal Hero is always considerably better at something than everyone else – be it the most powerful mutant crime fighter or the best baker of pies for the Church picnic.

This special talent is the driver of the plot.  Since it’s always worked in the past, it’s the crutch the hero continues to lean on, convinced will keep on working even as his/her unwillingness to overcome this reliance actually makes his/her problems more complex and critical.

I’ve only watched six episodes of Orphan Black to date, but I predict at some point Sarah’s problems will stop being so easily solved by assuming the identity of another person or coming up with plans in the heat of the moment.  At that point, she’ll need to either grow into some new abilities, or give up.

But I’m pretty sure Sarah Manning never gives up.

Who’s your favourite Orphan Black clone?  What special skills do some of your other favourite characters possess?  Writers, what are the skills of the heroes you’ve created?  Let me know in the comments.

(Image source #1 and #2)

6 thoughts on “Character Study: Sarah Manning from Orphan Black (and, yes, a hero IS a special snowflake)

  1. I haven’t seen Orphan Black, but now I want to! That’s an awesome character. Also reminds me a little of Doll House. Have you seen that show?

    As a writer, skills I’ve given my characters have been as subtle as a world view that allows them to think differently than those around them. I love writing characters with either very narrow minds or very expanded minds. One skill that I have to work hard to write is choosing not to care what other people think. I have several characters who have this skills in various forms and it is so different from who I am that it’s a real exercise, one that I enjoy immensely.

    • I have seen Doll House – that was a good show as well, although it differs from Orphan Black in that in OB, all the clones actually exist and interact with each other.

      I sometimes like to give my characters a bit of Pride (of the Seven Deadly Sins proportion) in their skill, so not only must they grow into new skills, they need to grow a humbler attitude as well.

  2. Yeah. OB. Glad to see you took the plunge. Wait until you hit season two. Things get weirder and awesomer.

    I’ve jokingly mentioned having a crush on Cosima, because who doesn’t love a sexy science nerd? But the longer I watch the show the more I start to like Alison, partly because Maslany is so awesome at playing her that I forget it’s the same actress. To go on would be spoilers for season two, so I’ll stop there. Hurry up and finish so we can chat!

    But I think they were wise in choosing Sarah as the lead, even though, if you pretend you met all of them at once, she is the least likable. I don’t mind latching on to a character who is so flawed, provided she is placed in circumstances that make those flaws interesting. Sarah thought she was in for a nice payday in her “Beth” con and ended up getting sucked into something far more expansive and deadly than she could have imagine. Now she has to use those same personality dynamics to get herself out of it.

    • It was a long weekend in Canada this past weekend, Eric, so I’m now only two episodes away from fully caught up! You’re right – shit’s getting CRAZY!

      I actually like Alison a lot too; she get’s a lot of funny scenes, which are made even funnier by the fact that she takes herself so seriously. I like the friendship she and Felix have developed, and Felix in and of himself is just the best.

      I agree that Sarah is the most unlikable, but that will give her lots of opportunities for character growth and to become a better person over multiple seasons. I don’t necessarily require a likable protagonist so long as s/he is interesting and doesn’t do anything too immoral.

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