I love when Friday Questions become entire posts. Here's one.
Max Davis wonders:
Hi Ken, do you have any techniques or exercises you use when creating sitcom characters? I'm having a bit of trouble breathing life into mine.
First I ask “what is his drive?” What does the character want or need that he can’t just get? You want characters who are active.
Similarly, what is his attitude? What is his worldview? You want your characters to be opinionated.
And this is very important: Is this a character who I understand enough that I could write him? Will I be able to relate to this character? Will I be able to get inside his head? I love JUSTIFIED, but there’s no way I could write that show. I have no idea what idiot hillbillies in Kentucky would do or say in any given situation. But I sure enjoy watching them.
It’s the old “write what you know” adage. Why? Because you want to be true to that character. Research often helps. You’d be surprised the gold you will find by simply researching your subject matter.
More factors: How will this character be funny? How will I be able to mine comedy out of this character?
Also, I look for what makes the character fresh? What traits can I give him that we haven’t seen a million times before? I will often base characteristics on real people and behavior I’ve seen. We all know interesting “characters.” I watch for that and will jot down idiosyncrasies for possible use later. And again, research is very helpful in this area.
In the quest to make characters comical there is the danger of making them too extreme or cartoonish. No matter how out-there a character is I always make sure he’s grounded in some reality.
And finally, where does this character fit in with the rest of the characters? If I’m creating a starring vehicle for someone then I make sure all of the characters have some function as it pertains to him. Picture a wagon wheel with the star as the hub. Example: Should he have a brother? And if so, are they close and his function is support, or is there a rivalry and his purpose is to create tension? Or is the brother a fuck-up and his purpose is to be a burden for our star? You get the idea.
For an ensemble situation I look at the overall dynamic and try to determine what types might play off of each other the best. Giving characters different points-of-view is one good way. Who is attracted to who is another.
Characters evolve. Once you come up with a possible character, write up a one page profile... just for yourself. What’s his background? Who did he vote for? What kind of car does he drive? What’s his favorite food? Has he been in long lasting relationships? Why not? What does he do for fun? How charitable is he? How computer savvy is he? What are his annoying habits? What are his fears? How important are material things? How well does he dress? Does he drink, and if so, what’s his drink of choice? Is he ambitious? What lengths will he go to to get what he wants? How smart is he? How well read? What kind of sense of humor does he have? How articulate is he? Does he have certain speech patterns? Does he have any physical tics? Is he a risk taker? How does he really feel about the opposite sex? Is he a Type A or B personality? How easily does he get rattled? Is he a sports fan? If so, which sport and which team? How frugal is he? What was the last movie he saw? Does he have a pet, and if so, what is it? Does he like children? How health conscious is he? Does he really excel in anything? What music does he like? Does he play an instrument? Does he go to museums? Which ones? Where has he traveled to? Has he served in the military? Does he have a college degree? What was his best subject? Can he speak a foreign language? Does he talk with his hands? How easily does he fall in love? When was the last time he had sex? Does he believe in God? Is he on Facebook? What’s his guilty pleasure?
And these are just some of the questions to answer. You don’t need to include all of this in your pilot obviusly, but just knowing the answers gives you a better feel for who he really is.
Finally, remember that characters evolve. Even after you put together your detailed profile, once you start actually writing the script, his dialogue will better define him, and you may find that he will veer from the profile. Allow that to happen.
And this is just creating a character on the page. Once an actor assumes the role he will bring his own qualities to the role and that will further shape the character. Then it’s up to you to determine what works and what doesn’t based on his strengths, weaknesses, and chemistry with other cast members.
Since I believe that all good comedy comes from character I spend a lot of the development process on creating good ones. It’s time well spent. Remember, every little thing a character does, every choice he makes, informs us as to he is. Who's his all-time favorite movie star and how do you show that?