Wednesday 20 January 2021

Creating Better Sitcom Characters

Years ago, I used to play Dungeons and Dragons.

Wait. Don’t go. Come back! I want to tell you about creating sitcom characters!

It’s a fairly open-ended kind of game which involves creating characters. I forget the details, but I think you pick a character type (eg. Warrior, Wizard, Bard etc) and some kind of outlook on life (eg. Lawful Good; Chaotic Neutral), and then rolled dice for six character attributes and then another dice for their ‘hit points’. You then had ‘a character’.

Creating characters this way is not a bad start for a game where you’re mostly hacking goblins to bits. And where your character's life plan is to hack goblins to bits. And find treasure.

But this approach is really not enough for sitcoms.

Describe Your Characters

What characters do you have in your sitcom?

Even if you've only just thought of a location or situation, you'll start to fill it our with characters almost immediately. So who are your characters?

You might instinctively describe them based on their age, gender and job title or situation. It’s easy to describe characters based on how they look, what they do or even what they say. But telling us what they are like is not enough.

No way near enough.

What's the Story?

I've been writing and podcasting a lot recently about the importance of story in sitcoms. This is much overlooked. Very very rarely indeed do I read a script in which the story of the script actually works well. Normally, a good script, a script that will do quite well in a competition, is some funny characters, an interesting situation, a refreshing attitude and some jokes. The big let down is always the story, which normally lacks a beginning, or if it has a beginning, there is no clear end point. And if it has a beginning and end, it lacks a muddle in the middle.

So, spend more time on the story, right? Right. And that's what I spend a lot of time on in my video course, Writing Your Sitcom.


You can't get the story right without getting the characters right. You can't tell a decent story about a sitcom character if you don't know who they really are, and what they really want. Knowing what the character is like is not enough.

Digging Deeper

I’ve said previously that sitcoms are a marathon, not a sprint. You need a character that will have a motivation that will carry them through 30-180 episodes. Even 12 is quite a lot of stories. And each week, they have a mini-quest. But those mini-quests are not a series of incidents, or impulses or whims. Those are easy. Your character wants to lose weight, make more money, dump their girlfriend, learn to drive, take up Morris Dancing or run for Mayor.

But why?

Why would they want to do those things?

Why do they want to do anything? The sitcom 'story of the week' has to be an expression of their life goal and their bigger story.

So the key question is this:

What does your character want?

This means asking further questions like: What is she trying to achieve? What gets her out of bed in the morning, keeps her up at night and drives her loved ones to distraction? There needs to be a unifying theme to these things. This is about life goals.

Everybody loves Jessica
Let's take the example of Jessica.

She's young. She's energetic. She's positive. And she loves to cook. In fact, she's obsessed with cooking. She's always cooking. She loves food, she loves ingredients. She loves going to farmers markets to get the best, most natural ingredients. Her fridge is always full of things to cook. And her freezer is full of things she has cooked. Does that sound like a sitcom character?

Nope. Not yet.

What Does Jessica Want?

I just said. She wants to cook.

But that's not enough. I can't write that character yet. But we could easily be fooled into thinking we can start plotting Jessica stories. After all, there’s lots of specificity there and we might get to work on the Jessica show thinking that all is well.

Is this Jessica?
There are some easy stories right there:

Jessica throws a dinner party.

Jessica goes to the farmers market.

Jessica needs a bigger fridge.

Jessica finds thing in the freezer and doesn’t know what it is.

Jessica gives someone food poisoning.

Jessica’s pressure cooker explodes.

But these aren’t stories, or even plots. They are events.

Why are they happening? Why is Jessica doing them? Why is she doing it this way and not that way? What does it matter to Jessica or anyone if she fails? Why is the exploding pressure cooker a disaster? Why not just buy another one?

Who is Jessica and why does she love to cook? I’ve no idea.


Too Many Cooks

This is not Jessica.

Look around at TV chefs and they all have a different angle. Think about the contrasting philosophies behind the cooking of Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Mary Berry, Gordon Ramsay, Pru Leith, Delia Smith, Heston Blumenthal and Nigel Slater. Why do they all cook?

For Jamie Oliver, food is about togetherness and family.

For Gordon Ramsay, it’s about excellence and professionalism - and making money.

For Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, it’s about the seasons and the bounty of Mother Nature.

For Heston Blumenthal it’s about innovation and experimentation.

These reasons to cook are all worlds apart from each other. In fact, they're barely even about cooking. There’s room for this glut of cooks and TV chefs and food writers because they all have different philosophies. They connect with completely different audiences who are looking for different things. It’s all related to cooking. But it’s not about cooking.

Choose Your Jessicas

What about your Jessica? Why does she cook?

This Jessica cooks because she has a polytunnel

Does Jessica want to be a celebrity chef because she wants to be famous?

So she’s making her food look amazing and is struggling to build her Instagram profile. She wants to get onto bake off to give her a platform for her persona. She's already picking out what she'll wear each week. That's one Jessica.

Does Jessica want to cook food from scratch from natural ingredients because she is trying to protect her family from chemicals and poisons?

So she’s sourcing ingredients from all over the country and the world, and receiving shipments from plantations in Sri Lanka and Ecuador, often in comically large bulky amounts. But she has to make the food taste good because otherwise they'll tease her for her paranoia. That's another Jessica.

Does Jessica want to create perfect meals because she has low-self-esteem and this is how she thinks she can win approval and acceptance?

So she’s slaving away over a hot stove, throwing away bake after bake until she reaches perfection that will win the affection of her husband, or would-be husband, or judgmental mother or sister? (Again, pick one - either a picky husband or a nightmare mother)

Does Jessica use food to express superiority because she’s a snob?

So she cooks rare ingredients to perfection and serve them to influential people and her enemies as a form of gloating.

You’ve got four completely different characters there. You could probably think of more. (eg. the Jessica who wants to prove that veganism works etc)

Which Jessica is yours?

You need to be crystal clear on your characters' motivations. This is what gets them out of bed – or keeps Jessica from her bed because she’s checking the oven every fifteen minutes, or shelling peas before sunrise or freezing to death in the wind picking blackberries or mushrooms.

And then, her trip to the farmers market have meaning. She’s going there to protect her family from chemicals and so it’s a matter of life and death when she can’t find. Or she’s going to show she’s posher than her neighbour in which case she needs to be seen there and time her visit accordingly.

Once your character has a strong of motivation, you can place her in dozens of situations and she will act consistently and, we hope, entertainingly. She will be making choices based on her long-term goal.

Congratulations. You have the beginnings of a sitcom character.

But just the beginnings.

Where we go from here? There’s a long road ahead, and if you need a map and a shove in the right direction, stay tuned for more, and I’ll be running a free webinar on how to build on this to create even better, deeper characters for your sitcoms and comedy dramas.

In the Meantime

In the meantime, you might have a script that's already plotted and written, and you just want to make it as good as it can be. There's a lot to be said for that. Get into the habit of making your writing as good as it can be. So have I've produced a PDF called 7 Things You Can Do To Improve Your Script Right Now. It has clear action points and specific things to do that should lift your script and make it sparkle. Get it here.

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