I've been working one particular sitcom idea for a few of years. It's a silly, jokey, studio-based show, rather than a searingly satirical non-audience piece. More Black Books than The Thick of It. The show has slowly moved around from one thing into another, losing one of the main characters and shifting focus, even though the tone has remained the same.
But all of the above has happened at such a slow speed that I've failed to notice that the key character is not clear enough. This has been pointed out to me by an exec (they're not all bad) and I've failed to properly address this, even though the script is on draft 6. If I'm honest, I have to admit that the comedy at the moment comes too much from the situation and the jokes - and not the key character at the centre of the show is based. We want to root for the guy - but we don't know how to because we don't know who he really is and what he really wants.
Some shows get away with this. I'd cautiously suggest that even one of my all time favourites, Seinfeld, has this failing. Jerry Seinfeld's character isn't quite sharp enough or focussed enough - but Elaine, George and Kramer cover that up well, as does a set of stand up at the beginning and the end. By the time the show was established, none of this seemed to matter. But they got lucky. (FYI Genius = luck + hard work + experience).
Anyway, before Christmas hits, I shall be asking myself these questions about my central character, which you may like to ask yourself of your characters that aren't quite working:
What does he want? Why? What does he think he wants? What does he actually want? How does this differ from what he actually needs? And what he gets?
What stops him from getting what he wants? How do the other characters stop him from getting what he wants? How is it ultimately his own fault?
How does he see the world? How does the world see him? How do the other characters see him? How does this differ with how we, the audience, see him?
If you don't answers for most of these, you've got a problem. So, if it's really not working, let's think the unthinkable:
Should he be a she? How does that change things?
Should he be something else completely?
Should he be deleted altogether? (I've already scrapped one character without replacing them - and it made it better).
Answer all of the above without resorting to tedious backstory. Backstory is comic death (because it's all reported) and doesn't move things forward. In sitcoms, characters need strong drives and clearly-defined quests and achievable goals - so that we know whether they are succeeeding or not. Whether they achieve them or not is up to you. But the more specific and defined the goal, the easier it is to understand. And if the audience isn't confused or baffled at any point, you stand a fighting chance of making them laugh. And that's what it's all about.