One question I've been asked a few times is this kind of question: "How do you go about creating well-rounded characters? And at what point do you start writing them?" Good question. After all, sitcom is not really about situation but character.
Some might say that the character is everything and you should always start with the character. That’s fine – but sometimes the situation or idea comes first, and the characters second. Most sitcoms I’ve created or co-created did not start with the characters. For Bluestone 42, Richard Hurst and I were interested in soldiers generally, and then a Counter-IED team specifically before we had any particular characters in mind. So how do you go about filling your scenario with characters that are going to seem real, funny and give you lots of stories to tell?
There isn’t one particular way that I know. You can start with a name, a face, a type or – even an actor your like that you think is funny. You just need a starting point. They could be based on someone you know well. Or a friend of a friend you know a little bit. Or a fictional character-type – ie. a Macbeth or a Falstaff. It doesn’t matter what primes the pump. Just get it going.
You can spend lots of time thinking about background and backstory, but ultimately you need to know what gets them out of bed and doing stuff. What drives them? What do they want? And how does this differ from what they actually need?
Ask big questions of your characters. What is your character’s most prized possession? If your character was offered three wishes by a genie, what would they wish for? Who would your character most like to meet? What is their dream job? If they were Prime Minister for the day, what would they do? Where in the world would they most like to go? Working out the answers to these questions will help you work out what are the big themes and wants in your character’s life.
Don’t just think of big questions. Have big answers. Your characters should be big and bold. They don’t need to brash and shouty, but they do need to have a clear point of view and perspective. If you’re basing your character on someone you know well, you might be tempted to make you character too moderate. It may make your character more ‘realistic’, but will actually make your character less ‘real’. Sometimes I read outlines of characters and they say things like.
Matilda knows what she wants and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. But sometimes she can be thoughtful and isn’t afraid to make herself vulnerable.
Who is Matilda? Who knows? I believe she exists, but I can’t write that character. I don’t know what she wants. In a sitcom, you need a character who is always too thoughtful and vulnerable – or never thoughtful and vulnerable. The audience need to know who your characters are, and what motivates them. Mixed motives and ambiguity will not help the comedy.
In a sense, you don’t actually want well-rounded characters. You want characters with a unique and consistent perspective – and permanent predictable goals. Great comedy characters have that. You instinctively know how Edina from Ab Fab, or Captain Mainwairing or Victor Meldrew are going to react to any given situation.
Ultimately, keep asking questions of your characters until you feel you know them. Let’s work up a quick example:
Matilda is works in an office. She's very junior, being only 19. She's got a couple of A-Levels (both grade D) and she's keen to progress in the company.
Let's interrogate this character. Why does she want to progress? What motivates her? Does she want status and prestige? Does she want the money that goes with the job - and therefore the status of material goods? Is it a rivalry with someone else? Is she a monster? What company is she working for? Why that company? Does a relative work there who got her a junior job? Does the company do something that she despise? Why isn't she at university?
Matilda is works in an office. She's very junior, being only 19. She's got a couple of A-Levels (both grade D) and she's keen to progress in the company because can't go to university, mianly because she needs to look after her dad (there's no mum), and her little sister (who, frankly, is trouble).
So Matilda is the bread winner. Interesting, potentially. It makes us like her more, or at least have real sympathy for her. But we need to keep asking more and more questions. Is she happy about this 'having to work' thing? Does she relish the challenge? Or is she ill-suited to it and more of a home-maker? Does she aspire to be an entrepreneur? Is she a natural but can't make the leap? Or is she deluded in her aspiration?
In fact, is Matilda just being an entrepreneur from the start much more interesting? Is she too big for a small company? Sooner or later, you stop telling your characters what’s what, and realise they are telling you.
At that point, you’ve got a character.