Writing a Sitcom – Creating Characters

If, for example, you were writing a sitcom, and you were researching your favourite sitcoms to find nuggets of character-creating inspiration, this is the sort of stuff you might find. If you were doing that.

Here’s Dan Harmon on creating characters:

Write your pilot before you know everything about these people. Let the story establish little pieces of them, don’t fill your script with facts about fictional strangers, fill your script with things happening to fictional strangers. Bring the atoms into collision and let your audience get glimpses of their nuclei as they repulse, neutralize and bond with each other. If you are capable of knowing exactly who these people are by the end of your pilot, you are probably writing a bad TV show. The good news being, I predict much success for you.
But if your goal is to create a TV character with depth, it’s the same as if your goal were to create a tree with height: you’ll have to be patient and surrender a lion’s share of your control. God doesn’t make a tree with hammer and nails. He makes a seed. Likewise, actors and audiences and time are the things that are going to give your characters depth, the best you can do as the writer of a pilot is provide the reader with evidence of that potential.

Mitch Hurwitz on the genesis of Arrested Development:

Someone told me once about this paradigm that exists: matriarch, patriarch, craftsman, and clown. It’s this quartet that resonates through history and popular culture, and you can find it as a diagram in everything from The Beatles to ‘Leave It To Beaver’ to ‘Seinfeld’. In The Beatles, you can kind of see it the clearest. You know, Paul is the matriarch, John is the patriarch, the craftsman is George and the clown is Ringo. So I wanted to get that in there, and I thought, “Maybe that will be the four kids. I’ll do a show about four kids.” As it turns out, Michael and Lindsay would be the matriarch and patriarch. The craftsman, to me, is Buster, because he’s a scholar and he’s serious, and the clown is Gob, because he’s a magician, and clowns literally are magicians. [Laughs.] Oh, there are some magical clowns out there. But I don’t want to make this an advertisement for clowns.

There’s an interesting breakdown of archetypal sitcom characters over at TV Tropes.

It is important to note that, unlike the Five-Man Band, it isn’t strictly necessary for each show to have a representative member for each archetype. Keep in mind that, just as in Real Life, the world of Sit Coms is awash in many various and diverse personalities, of which this is hardly an exhaustive list; so there’s no need to shoehorn characters into these categories. Some shows will utilize certain archetypes and leave out others, or may have characters who don’t fit into any of the listed types.

Of course, even when dealing with archetypes, it’s important to remember, as Garry Shandling puts it (when describing a Hank Kingsley character moment)

Everybody’s stupid, everybody’s smart. Everybody’s bumbling, everybody’s intelligent… We’re all different things at different times.

And that’s when your characters become human, I suppose.

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One thought on “Writing a Sitcom – Creating Characters

  1. i work as a janitor in a local scoohl with a bunch of crazy guys with a personality all their own including yours truly -i do believe that a show about us and our every day jobs would make for good viewer watching we could have the teachers at the end of their day tell us how their day went to an episode of oh my! were out of toilet paper i even have a great name for the show’s opening CUSTODIANS -and we could have the O in CUSTODIANS look like toilet paper with some hanging down in the opening together with a great opening theme song this show could make it! i do thank you so much for your time i hope you consider my proposal Jack Diliberto p.s. i would love to audition for this show!

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