Recently, I wrote about how a sitcom character isn’t a random bag of attributes and attitudes, rolled up with dice like a characters in Dungeons and Dragons.
It’s easy to think you’ve got a sitcom character when you haven’t really. You only know what they like to do and want they to do. Initially that might sound like enough. But it isn’t.
You need to be creating characters that will run for multiple seasons so the way you set them up is crucial. And that's what producers and readers are looking for in scripts. Not jokes. They're not actually that hard. It's characters who can run and run.
Our Friend Jessica
Initially it feels like there are a lot of plots and stories around cooking. She offers to cook for her neighbour who is sick. There’s a village fete and she wants to win the baking competition. A particular berry is in season and she needs to be out into the muddy fields to get the pick of the crop.
But why? Why is Jessica doing these things?
We need to know why Jessica is really doing these things because it needs to matter when she fails. And she is going to fail. It needs to hurt.
Wanting to cook isn’t quest. Wanting to be a cook or a chef isn't either. What Jessica needs is a sacred quest or calling that is going to be at heart of everything she does for dozens of episodes.
So how about this for our Jessica?
Jessica actually loves nature. She wants to be in tune with it, and the seasons. And the way she expresses that isn’t through political activism, biological research or pets – but seasonal wholesome home cooking. And she wants that food to taste really good, because she wants them to love nature too, in the same way that she does. Essentially, she doesn’t love cooking. She loves nature.
That’s better than what we had. But it still doesn’t quite feel right yet. We’ll come back to her in a moment.
Sitcom characters lack self-awareness. They think they want one thing, but actually they want or need another. They are fools. They think happiness or contentment can be found one way, but quite often that’s the thing that makes them miserable, or frustrated. They end up trying to please the implacable, or achieve the impossible.
The audience and the other characters have different perspectives on that character although the other characters in the sitcom will often misinterpret each other’s actions and motivations, but we’ll get to that in the webinar. (see below)
Such Is Life
This way of approaching sitcom characters sounds like a trick. But it isn’t. Comedy is based on truth. (I talk about that The Sacred Art of Joking) But this lack of self-awareness and state of delusion is life. We convince ourselves of all kinds of lies to get through the day. We run around in ever decreasing circles trying to solve problems that won’t actually help, trying to please people we don’t like or achieve goals that, if we stopped to think about for a while, we have no real desire to achieve.
It often takes people therapy, counselling or a traumatic event to really figure out what they want in life and how they’ve been going about it completely the wrong way. You’re characters probably aren’t in therapy. They're in denial. Like most of us. They’re living their lives, trying and failing and driving each other crazy.
With this in mind, let's get back to Jessica. How about this?
Jessica cooks. But she doesn’t understand why. She thinks it’s because she’s good at it and that it brings her pleasure. She is quite good at it. Actually finds cooking frustrating because she has high standards. But why does she put herself through this?
Jessica does love nature, as we've said. And she loves living in the countryside. But she feels like a fraud. Because she’s a townie. Or thinks she is. She lived in the city for years but moved to the countryside a few years. She’s not the cliched city slicker who’s moved to a farm and found all the locals backward or hostile. (I am so bored of that trope)
In fact, everyone’s been very nice and welcoming to Jessica and she’s part of the community. But she still feels like an outsider. To prove that she fits in, she tries to show that she understands nature, and the ways of the countryside. And so to do that – in her head – is by cooking seasonal recipes, making jam and pickle and giving out jars it and winning the occasional rosette that the village fete. (But not too often or that looks bad).
Jessica is a nature lover, but that’s a passion. But she, like most people, wants to be liked, respected and accepted. We can all relate to that, even if we don't feel it. And cooking is how she expresses that need to be accepted.
So that’s Jessica.
But what about her husband? Her mother? And her brother-in-law? What are they like and how do that relate?We don’t just need to do apply this process to one character but to a family of characters – but we don’t do that in isolation.