Characters and sitcom writing

As a writer, I’ve tried a number of different formats with varying degrees of success. When I started writing at Uni, it was short animated films and the odd comic strip. I moved onto short opinion pieces, then travel articles, features on brides (urgh), the jewellery industry (so me) and the menopausal (woww), while still writing this blogge throughout. Not to mention the occasional song, a half-finished travel book, a concept for a lo-budget travel guide, a hillarious romance novel etc etc etc.

Although people like to pester me about these (‘Whatever happened to that blah you were writing about the blah?’), I don’t consider any of my semi-digested works to be a time wasted or even on the discard pile – they’ll all lead somewhere, eventually. As Michael Palin once sang: every sperm is sacred.

It’s taken a long time to realise what I am good at and what I can’t do for toffee. On politics, economics and current affairs I am about as useful to society as Gwyneth Paltrow is to the ‘inner aspect’. On some literature, comics, films and general ribaldry, I am on firmer ground.

As an animator, and even when I drew comic strips, they were always character-driven. I always saw this as a failing (I might have to do a post one day on ‘Tartan Monster’, ‘Space Sisters’, ‘RRRR’ and ‘Those Wacky Funsters’, comic strips of old). Animators love doing this – they draw up a detailed model sheet, depicting their character from 100 different angles. If it’s female it has the same dimensions as either a sex doll or a child. Everyone in the studio clusters around saying woah rad to the power of sick bro. Then they start hunting around for a writer to ‘flesh out their ideas’. Thus a show is born.

More recently I have begun to see this as my strength. I have a feeling short format, character-driven stuff is where my niche sits. In writing, you test the boundaries of your characters using the following approach:

1. Throw things at him/her
2. Get your protagonist into a tree
3. Get him/her down

I’m self-taught and have never encountered any of this stuff before. But as suspected, this whole malarkey is going to take a lot longer than expected. I had a great idea – I had some characters – I had a synopsis – I charged off into the night and began to write Episode 1, Scene 1.

Wrong!

According to all sources, this is the first mistake greenhorns make. Nothing kills off humour like starting at the start and ending at the end. So I went back to the drawing board. I’ve been watching a lot of stand-up and comedy shows lately, what with having not much work on. And for the first time in years having more than two cents to rub together to see some of the comedy festival.

Shows like Nathan Barley are fantastic but dark dark dark to the core. Same with Snuff Box, but with an all-singing factor. Anything with an edge and a bit of British surrealism works for me. Graham Linehan (The IT Crowd, Black Books) is probably one of my favourite TV writers, and unlike a lot of comedy writers he’s free and easy with his advice and quite transparent about his working methods. Daggy as it is, The IT Crowd has to be one of my favourite sitcoms. It’s beautifully written and the plot is driven by the characters playing off each other, rather than the other way round (while all that is said, the show would be nought without the input from lead actors – they’re utterly fab in it).

<==You can guess what I think about this gentleman, Richard Ayoade

Writer Robin Kelly, has some useful stuff on his website about character, plot, structure and how to approach sitcoms in general. I’ve always been averse to the wee ‘exercises’ you get in short courses and books on writing. It always seemed to be more fluff in the way of sitting down and actually doing something.

Kelly puts forward Beeb writer Matthew Carless’ list of questions to ask about your characters, which I’ve found really helpful. None of this may appear in the actual show, but all of it is supposed to flesh out your characters and make them start to tick:

1. Describe your character’s physical appearance. How does he or she dress?
2. Describe your character’s childhood in terms of family relationships, relationships with the key people in his or her youth, lifestyle whilst growing up and education.
3. Describe the character’s current relationship with family, friends and other key people.
4. Describe the character’s romantic life and his or her moral beliefs.
5. What is the character’s occupation, and summarise the relationship he or she has with the boss and work colleagues and the character’s attitude towards the job.
6. Describe the character’s non-work activities in terms of hobbies, eating and drinking habits, favourite television shows or films, and favourite locations.
7. Describe the character’s philosophy on life.
8. Sum up the main aspects of the character’s personality. How is s/he larger than life (or “comically heightened”) yet still rooted in reality, thus remaining believable?
9. What is this character’s main comic flaw? How is it related to the stories you will give the character and how does it get him/her into hot water in individual episodes and in the long term?
10. Summarise the character’s relationship to the other major characters in the script/series. Outline the potential for comic clashes between personalities and what will make these relationships funny.
11. What is the character’s lifetime goal or ambition and why does s/he want to achieve it?
12. What would your character do if he or she won the lottery?

I plugged myself into iTunes and whacked down the main points of my characters in two days, no joke. I thought it would take an hour. It was hard, but a fantastic exercise to do, and some weird things popped out. Unlike a lot of sitcoms, I don’t fancy my characters being unpleasant or hard to watch, like David Brent or George Costanza. I agree with Graham Linehan on this point. The funniest characters should be agreeable in some way and make you want to keep watching, yet have a sad side to them.

One totally unexpected and embarrassing thing I noticed is that all three main characters are like me, in one way or another. The light and shade of the typical Gemini personality (you call it ‘moody’, I call it ‘high-spirited and interesting’) has been split into three equal parts, all of which bicker and disagree on most points. This makes me, in no particular order:

-A Chinese-Australian designer whose life is a mess
-A gentle, effeminate Austrian architect whom everyone thinks is gay
-A nerdy psychologist who wears an ear cuff and runs a medieval acting troupe

I confess I’d love to draw these characters. I reckon other animators would gather about my desk going cuz u r boom gnarly to the maxx (my imaginary nerds are Kiwi) however cartoon characters who do nothing but yap are a total waste of paper. Think of the trees! So live action they must be. And lots more work I must do.

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7 thoughts on “Characters and sitcom writing

  1. Those three characters sound fun to work with. Have you worked out what brings them together?I reckon a lot of characters we write kind of reflect an aspect of ourselves – but we have to go outside of that to get to experiences, emotions, and people who are not ourselves too.So I’m of the school of: Whatever works for you to get a piece of writing done. If detailed character sketches work, then great, but if you need to drive the thing by narrative and plot then I’d fill in those details later.Might I also suggest (I don’t know why I wrote that, because I can’t help myself but I think it is basically to say “feel free to ignore” but I think this is a concrete suggestion about one of your characters) that your third character is a Jungian psychologist into the shadow of the self (that works with the nerdy bit and can make for funny directions) and is into LARPing (Live Action Role Playing – dressing up as elves and orcs etc – See doco called Monster Camp.)

  2. I’m sure your sitcomme will be rad to the power of sick, but also want to push for a return of Those Wacky Funsters, not to mention the Wheel of Poo. That *deserves* to see the light of day, somehow.

  3. Ah Ed! You know her well already!! I based her on a girl I went to Uni with, as well as a chick I saw on a train once. I have her and her boyfriend going to those medieval ‘Fayre and Tourneys’ with a more swordfighting/historic focus than elves and orcs. But you are right on the money. There used to be a group at Melb Uni called ‘The Society for Creative Anachronism’. Their website is here: http://www.sca.org.au/lochac/ and is so so worth a look. Monster Camp sounds awesome – I must see it.The Wacky Funsters may have had their day (I don’t see such people any more, thank god). They are all grown up and have moved to Brunswick, Fitzroy etc, where they remain a rich source of mock on forums such as this blog.Wheel of Poo eh? Don’t you worry – as I say, it will all come out somewhere!!

  4. They were at Monash too – it looked kind of fun and I always wondered about joining as I’ve always enjoyed nerdy fringe shit like roleplaying games and tabletop strategy games – but just could not bring myself to wear a cloak around a union building… I was still trying to be cool back then, whereas now I accept my nerdom.

  5. Oh and Monster Camp was an awesome doco – funny in places just because it was, but it also explored the meaning of it all from the perspective of those involved without judgment. Sort of like anthropological film does.

  6. I’d like to see a show about that cute tacker up in the header…sweeeeett!! Also agree with watching SCA and being strangely attracted…also my fav parts of monster camp are the bits where they are all getting in and out of bed with each other and the politics of the “game”

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