Monday, January 19, 2015

How I create characters

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.
You want to avoid stereotypes, but it doesn’t hurt if a character has some recognizable trait, especially in an ensemble comedy. Remember, you’re introducing a lot of characters and the audience has to lock in on them very quickly. In CHEERS, Cliff is the bar know-it-all, Norm is the customer who never leaves, etc.   But as the series unfolds always look for ways to give them more dimension and depth.   

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? 


Dan Ball said...

I had a good friend who took Second City Chicago's sketch comedy class and shared his notes with me. They teach what they call the "Comic Perspective" (or maybe it's just a comic character).

Basically, this means you give the character FLAWs and HUMANITY. Humanity so that the audience can relate to the character, but enough flaws so they don't feel the character's misfortune is aimed as a statement against them. (I know there are other parts to it, but I don't have my notes with me to check.)

Ken, does this factor into your character 'mapping' or do these things come more naturally for you after all these years?

Johnny Walker said...

Great post! Thanks for that. One question: When you say, "We all know interesting 'characters.' I watch for that and will jot down idiosyncrasies for possible use later."

What do you look out for? What examples could you give? World views or just random superficial traits.

Eg: "He has a big beard and never notices when food falls into it, much to his wife's distress" or "He believes that the US Government is secretly comprised of reptilian aliens -- but is otherwise completely sane"?

Actually now I write this out, I think I'm answering my question: It's essentially anything that grabs your attention and you find interesting.

Andy in Chicago said...

About characters evolving . . . I seem to recall Larry Linville departing M*A*S*H because his character of Frank Burns didn't get to evolve while Margaret completely changed. Would you agree that Larry's character didn't get the same opportunity that Loretta's did to change and grow? The show needed a counterpart to Hawkeye, so did the needs of the show outweigh the needs of the actor?

Mike Barer said...

I was always facinated with the Maurice character from Frasier. When Mel became Nile's love interest, I figuered that she was the embodiment of Maurice.

Mike said...

So are you going to publish the bios?

Charles H. Bryan said...

Well, if you're going to make it sound like a bunch of work, forget it.

Anonymous said...

Hey Johnny,
This one is fresh, but what bothers me is that when I read Done Deal forums , they keep repeating themselves. Why do they repeat the same questions over and over at Done Deal?
I like Levine site , because it is very fresh and timely.
Who are these farts on Done Deal, why do they repeat the same questions over and over?

blinky said...

I wonder if Larry David did a character page for Kramer in Seinfeld? He didn't have a first name until a "Who killed Mr Burns" type mystery in the last season or so. Could he have had Cosmo on that one-page bio all those years just waiting for the right moment to use it?

Michael said...

Related to last week's Neil Simon posts - Quinn Cummings just posted a picture on her instagram account of old copy of cover page for "MR FAMOUS" (The Goodbye Girl Part Two) screenplay by Neil Simon.

I wonder how far along into development it got.

Bill Taub said...

So - we meet again. I would like to throw in an alternative perspective to 'write what you know'. This one comes from Robert Towne (a fairly good writer) who professes we 'write what we want to see'. 'What you know' might be what you want to see, but it doesn't have to be. I just did an interview with Danny Strong, who did 'Recount', 'Game Change', and presently the break out hit, 'Empire'. He writes what he wants to see and pretty successfully I might add. I'm just sayin...

dgwphotography said...

"I love when Friday Questions become entire posts. Here's one. "

and I love when your posts need an image of Natalie Wood :-)

Douglas Trapasso said...

Adding to blinky's comment:

WKRP had two great examples of the writers holding back crucial info about the characters, which made them more intriguing to watch week to week:

We never found out the source of Jennifer's wealth nor why she continued to work at KRP. And we never received official confirmation what drugs (if any) Johnny ever did (I always wondered if that was dictated by CBS suits - I could imagine them demanding that the writers couldn't explicitly say one way or the other).

Douglas Trapasso said...

Possible Friday question:

I loved that list you posted, Ken! It shows you can take almost any trait and use it as a springboard to create a character.

Which leads me to #3 from the bottom, and my question:

Why do you think it's so rare for our pop culture to include stories involving people of faith?

And I mean -any- faith (and absence of faith too - how many shows can you name that have had an athiest or agnostic as its lead?)

I am not asking for the Amy Grant channel. I just believe (pun intended) that a person's religious feelings can definitely drive a story's action. Surprised we don't see that attempted more often.

Case C said...

It’s pretty awesome that you share so much of your process with us - You and your partner are experts in creating entertaining, compelling characters - Much can be learnt

Matt said...

Suppose you aren't the creator of the character, but you are asked to do episode 2.

What do you do than?

Hamid said...

I have no idea what idiot hillbillies in Kentucky would do or say in any given situation

You can pretty much distill their worldview down to four things: "I hate fags, I love Jesus, I love guns, I love my cousin".

PatGLex said...

Re: idiot hillbillies in Kentucky -- trust me, if you can think of the stupidest thing anyone could do, someone in Kentucky has done it. They show up on the local news nightly. [Going on the run with your 13-year-old girlfriend, stealing cars? Check. Killing the people who just bought your store because you think they cheated you out of something? Check. (Oh, yes, and you're a minister.)] Craziness abounds here.

Johnny Walker said...

Anonymous: I have no idea what "Done Deal forums" are. I'm glad that you like this blog, though.

Mike said...

@Douglas Trapasso: In America, choosing a denomination may alienate half the audience.

Try Rev (UK, 2010-2014). An inner-city priest trys to practice Christian values with a small & dwindling congregation in a church too old & big to be maintained. Inside the modern church adopting modern business methods.

Brian said...

Friday Question: What was it like working with Frances Sternhagen? I've never heard you mention her. After all, she was the one who got to talk with Johnny.
- Brian

Steve said...

Friday question: In your post about creating characters, you mentioned making characters real, 3-dimensional people. But one question I've had concerns rather cartoonish characters on terrific shows, such as Frank on MASH, Ted on Mary Tyler Moore, etc.

Ted, for example, was so over-the-top stupid and could never actually earn or keep his job, but most thought of him as a hilarious character (although for me personally, he was often so ridiculous that it took me out of the show to some extent). Frank was such an obvious and pathetic villain. Yes, of course, once a season or so there'd be some episode that would give a Frank or a Ted some more nuance, but for the most part they were cartoons. (And replacing Frank with Charles was, to me, an improvement because although Charles could be ridiculous and a villain, he came across as an actual human being).

Can you comment on finding this balance between a cartoonish side character built for laughs and as a foil, versus the need to have characters who are at least somewhat realistic people?

Diane D. said...

I would like to second Steve's Friday question and hope you have time to answer it. I have always wondered the same thing.

However I don't remember any character in Cheers or Frasier being that ridiculous. Coach and Woody, in spite of being over the top clueless, still came across as real. Makes me wonder if you didn't really like how ridiculous Ted was.