You have a great idea for a pilot, but don’t have strong characters-it’s not going to get anywhere-Trust me on this one. Here is a little exercise: Think about the shows, or films, but since it’s fellowship and TV writing program season, let’s stay with television, so think about the shows you love-they all have great characters. If they don’t stop reading this and immediately go get a new career. I am serious.
Let’s see some of my personal favorites.
HOUSE-The character of Gregory House is one of the most complex characters ever written for television and Hugh Laurie played him brilliantly. Take a look at this audition video-
Now just from the dialogue we KNOW who that character is. It sure doesn’t hurt to have such a great actor reading it. But everything from the way he answers to the snarky remarks shows us “who” the character is and continues to do so every single episode for the 8 seasons that show was on the air.
FRIENDS-for a comedy you have six very different and very strong characters. If you don’t watch it, you really should tune in-it’s on all the time. Those characters were very well written. Monica being the uptight neat control freak-Joey being the dumb one-Ross and Chandler being geeky in their own way. It’s just classic for great characters.
Even better-the Odd Couple-Felix and Oscar were two of the best written characters in television back in the day and since then a few shoes have tried to mimic the “odd couple” pairing and it just hasn’t worked. Example look at Two Broke Girls-those two are not defined enough and that is why the show suffers-well one of the many reasons.
Seinfeld-George Costanza is a great character. The audience knows exactly who he is and why nothing is every going to work out for him in the end. Watch this clip.
For drama, besides HOUSE I really love the characters of Mad Men-the show is flawless in character development.
This is a clip of Joan showing a new Peggy around the office. Everyone about the way these two women interact, are dressed and what they say shows us who they are.
So when writing your own pilot-think about everything that will show us-not tell us-who your characters are. Don’t forget when we meet them to describe what they are wearing-clothes tell everything about a person. Then show us through dialogue. The biggest issue I see when reading people’s scripts is that all the characters in the show are exactly alike-that is boring and just doesn’t make compelling storytelling.
Some other great shows with great characters:
Will & Grace, Cheers, The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, The Jeffersons, Dharma and Greg, Frasier.
Breaking Bad, Parenthood, Dexter, The Good Wife, LOST, Alias, Buffy.