Tuesday 19 November 2013

How many characters should you have?

On Twitter, I opened this blog up for questions and Richie (@McQ72)  asks “How many main characters should there be...??...Or really...what's the maximum...??...”

In the past, I wrote six episodes of a show called My Hero. I started writing episodes in the fourth series, when it had ten regular characters. The focus was always on the ‘hero’, played by Ardal O’Hanlon, who drove the main plot every week. His story would often involve his wife, Janet (Emily Joyce) and/or his venal friend, Arnie and/or his insane neighbour, Tyler. There was a B-plot, usually based around the slimy doctor (Hugh Dennis) and the psychopathic receptionist Mrs Raven (Geraldine McNulty), and a C-plot, often based around Janet’s snobby mum and long-suffering dad. It was a large cast to handle and the rule was that every character was in every episode. The upside was that you had ten different attitudes to any given situation – and therefore ten types of joke. There were lots of possible stories – which is why there are dozens of episodes. And it meant that you didn’t need as many guests parts, since lots of roles could be filled by regulars (ie. Janet’s mum could turn her had to being a florist, or Mrs Raven could turn out to be very good at butchery etc). And the audience would always rather see the regular characters than guests stars. Those are the upsides. The downside was making sure enough people had lines and jokes. This was hard work – but you always new it was possible, because every week, we just about managed it.

The set up of My Hero was not of my choosing. The show was conceived by a delightful man called Paul Mendleson. The show I’m writing at the moment, Bluestone 42, was of my choosing, although the characters we have felt like they had to reflect military reality. When Richard Hurst and I chose a bomb disposal expert as a lead character in a sitcom, we discovered that his team would be a minimum of four people (ATO, Number 2, Bleep and Military Escort). We ended up with six in the team (ATO, Number 2, Bleep and a three man military escort – to give us an array of perspectives and rivalries), plus an interpreter, a padre, a Lieutenant Colonel. That’s nine characters – which, again, is very tricky. We love all the characters dearly and giving them good jokes and a satisfying story in 28 minutes is really hard work. Somehow, the stories seems to follow the same pattern as My Hero. Captain Nick Medhurst is ‘the hero’ and leads a story every week, which normally involves one of the other characters. Mac and Rocket, the squaddies, tend to have a B or C plot, and the other characters are normally involved in the other plot.

So, maybe Nick has a problem with his new number two, Towerblock – and turns to the Lt Col for advice – that’s the A Plot. Meanwhile Bird has a running battle with Mary the padre over something – that’s the B Plot. And Simon’s being pestered by Mac and Rocket over something. That’s the C Plot, which may end up being the same size as the B Plot.

Making a Large Cast Work
Sitcoms can support a large casts. Some recent gems that jump to mind would be Parks and Recreation and Arrested Development. Much older shows would be Dad’s Army and The Phil Silvers Show (aka Bilko). In each case, the show has a clear lead, eg. Leslie Nope in Parks and Rec, Michael Bluth in Arrested Development, or Bilko in The Phil Silvers Show – or central relationship in Dad’s Army, between Mainwairing and Wilson.

It’s worth looking at those David Croft sitcoms which all had large casts, but a fairly clear central hub. Hi-De-Hi seemed to focus around a few central characters and draw in peripheral ones when needed. Allo Allo was very much focussed on Rene Artois who was the ringmaster in a circus of lunatics.

Keeping Focus
Based on all of the above, then, I would suggest, then, that you ultimately know who your show is about. It should be about one key character (eg. Miranda, David Brent, Mrs Brown, Basil Fawlty, Victor Meldrew, Wolfy Smith, Leslie Nope) or a central relationship (eg. Edina & Saffy, Rodney & Del Boy, Hacker & Sir Humphrey, Sharon & Tracey, Terry & June, Fletcher & Godber). If you know this, you’ll know where your main A plots are coming from. If you don’t, you’ll have split focus, you’ll not know what you’re writing and the audience, should it make it that far, won’t know what/who they’re watching. And ultimately, that character, or relationship, should encapsulate what the show is about.

There are always exceptions, of course. One would be Modern Family, which has a large cast and seems to split its focus equally between the three family units with no clear ‘star’ or ‘hero’. Each episode is normally three plots that run along side each other. But then again, we should not be surprised that this. Modern Family is always exceptional.

Avoiding Overlap
Whatever you decide, however many characters you end up with, central or peripheral, you need to make sure that all your characters have clear, contrasting voices and unique perspectives. If they are all given the same task (eg taking part in a Secret Santa or running a pub quiz), they should all instinctively go about it in completely different ways. When some news breaks (eg. There’s no hot water or there’s a hurricane coming), they all react in different ways, and then end up in conflict.

Quite often, I find, when you’re storylining a new show, some characters generate stories and seem to end up in the thick of the action, and other characters you thought were going to be funny or useful fall by the wayside. It’s all part of the process, which is one of the reasons why developing new sitcoms takes ages.

So, thanks, Richie. If anyone else has a question, tweet @sitcomgeek.


  1. Thank you so much, I've written a comedy about a dysfunctional local council that initially was intended as a 60min per episode comedy drama series. The feedback I've received is that the world I've created is over populated and that it would work better as a 30 min comedy. The advice has been invaluable and the current draft is nice 30 min and the series now has nine characters including the central/lead character. I take on all constructive critique as I know its coming from people whose knowledge and experience is invaluable. Can I ask though is nine characters considered too many and how many characters is considered the standard/norm? Thanks.

  2. Hi, I am writing an idea for a comedy for tv. 30 minutes. I have ideas for a sitcom, but o am not a writer, how can we draft this? How do I sell the idea?