Tuesday 7 September 2010

Characters and Stories

I'm going to spoil a book for you. An expensive one. That Robert McKee book called Story, which is now an astonishing £19.99 in paperback. In paperback. That said, we tend not prize that which has cost us nothing - so you'll ignore what I say when I summarise the book. McKee argues (I seem to remember) that story is character. Character is story. Characters only exists in stories. Stories are only meaningful with characters. You get the idea. What's the plot of your film, sitcom, or novel? Well, who are the characters and what are they trying to do? Story and Character are two sides of the same coin.

It's extremely easy to forget this, especially when coming up with ideas for a new sitcom. Whenever I read treatments for new shows by new writers - and look back at my old ones when I was 'new' - I often see this being forgotten or ignored.

Most comedy writers know that sitcom is about memorable characters. But often, much light and heat is generated explaining who the character is and where they have come from - their likes and dislikes. Often, these get very nuanced and contradictory. I always cringe when a character outline contains the words 'sometimes' or 'occasionally'. Sitcom characters don't do things occasionally. They either do them all the time. Or never. Or for a funny or compelling reason.

Here is what I mean. This is a sitcom I've just invented in the last 30 seconds. It's called The Greasy Pole.

Sally is a business woman who is trying to be a success, but it's not as easy as she thought it would be. She used to work for the local council, but she was frustrated that it was slow and bureaucratic. Then one day, she met a business guru who changed her life and told her that she could be anything she wanted to be. So she bought a power suit, got a loan from the bank and started her own business - a shop selling stationery. After all, everyone needs stationery, don't they? But her life is made even harder by the shop assistant, Pavlov, the Polish friend of a friend with bad English that she rashly hired because she felt sorry for him...

You get the idea. I had to stop there, as I was getting cross just writing it like that. The reality is that there could be a perfectly decent show in there (Miranda runs a shop) - and there was lots of detail, but we don't really know anything about Sally at all. Just what happened in the past. We're left asking the question 'Why?' an awful lot. The audience will be asking it all the time if they happen to tune in to episode 2, having missed the first one.

Characters need momentum - stories. They need quests and dreams. They need relationships. Why does anyone do anything? These are very basic questions about our very existence, but the sitcom-writer needs to address them.

When I was setting up my Radio 4 sitcom, Hut 33, I had to do this. The show is about a disparate bunch of people thrown together at Bletchley Park by the war. But where are they from? What drives them? Not exterior events in the war. Or even their roles within the war. It's about who there are and what they want: Charles is a snob who wants to preserve the pre-war status quo. He is into self-preservation, luxury and being seen to be right. Archie is an inverse-snob who wants to see the likes of Charles taken down a peg or two. Even though he's an academic hanging around with private school boys, he wants to preserve his working-class roots and embraces the language of Marxism. Gordon is a seventeen-year old who is trapped in the crossfire of Archie and Charles. He just wants everyone to be friends. And he wants to be taken seriously as a 'grown-up', and fit in, even though he is a teenager among men.

Once you have characters that have a forward momentum and attitudes, you can start to throw them into situations and see how they react - restrict their food, extend their working hours, drop a bomb on their hut or threaten them with a posting to the jungle, and see what happens. Ideally, they need to be the instigators of these things. Or the instigators of other stories, which are interrupted or modified by bombs or other circumstances beyond their control.

That's what I'm doing at the moment with a number of sitcom projects. I've assembled some characters, and given them trajectories, hopes and dreams - and am now seeing what happens when things go wrong, or unexpectedly right for the wrong reason. It's only when you start storylining that your find our whether you have workable, active characters - who are the authors of their own downfall.

Let's go back to Sally in The Greasy Pole? Why did she hire Pavlov? Is it because she can't say 'no' to anyone because she wants to be liked? (like Geraldine in Dibley)? Which means that all her plans to run a business are almost certainly doomed to comic failure? Why is she even running a shop? Is she trying to prove her husband/boyfriend/mother wrong - and she wants to be taken seriously? Is she really that insecure? (she could be) Is she just passionate about stationery? If so, why? Could it be something else she is passionate about that says something about her? Could it be a haberdashery, because she likes pretty things - because she is all about looking good, rather than being good, and she hired Pavlov because he's cheap (thus making Sally a bitch, which might be funny). What happens when her personal life gets in the way of her shop? How does she manage that? On what basis does she make those decisions?

The fact is that failure to do this makes the show impossible to write, because you don't know why your characters get up in the morning. Once you have living, breathing, thinking characters, they start talking to you. You hear voices in your head (in a good way) and they go off and do things. When that happens, despite what any psychiatrist might say, you are really onto something good.

1 comment:

  1. Useful post Jam- it chimes with some stuff I've been reading about narrative theology (so somewhat tangential, and potentially only interesting to me). NT is a reaction to a systematic theology that takes what is a narrative revelation and extrapolates lists and doctrines, presenting that as a purer truth. Character is action- a good story teller brings a character alive by narrating events well, in a way that no number of straightforward propositional statements could accomplish. We don’t infer character from story, character is known in and through the story “and recedes from cognitive grasp the more he is abstracted from story” (James Kelsey). Guys like Hand Frei are keen that we read Jesus in the context of his story, what he did and experienced as much as what he said and the 'truths' we can systematise from that. His life wasn't just a convenient background for a sermon, just like a great sitcom character cannot simply spout morals and lessons (or even jokes). The meaning is the story, the character is the action.

    I guess as a writer you need to know who they are in order to know what they will do, but the audience can only ever know who they are THROUGH what they do.

    Not a fully developed thesis there (clearly needs some clarifying!) but it's got me thinking, so thanks.