Make sure you know who your characters are before you unleash them on the audience.
A couple of years ago, I was involved as script-editor in the creation of a new Flemish comedy series called Urbain. Starring Flanders’ best-known comedian, Urbanus, the series’ premise was a fictitious look at the home life of the comedian. When his wife decides to go back to work, he agrees to look after the kids, helped and hindered by his mother, brother-in-law/manager and his young female chauffeur. Though Urbanus had made a few films and several TV series, he’d never been involved with a sitcom before. As we developed the scripts, one major problem quickly arose which never got solved satisfactorily. The secondary characters never gelled. Urbain’s mother was borderline demented in one episode, sharp-witted and romantically hyperactive in the next. His brother-in-law fancied the chauffeur one moment, and ignored her the next; his relationship with Urbain was never clearly defined, and his central comedic archetype remained maddeningly vague. Despite my best efforts, it proved impossible to get a consensus on these matters. Though ratings weren’t a disaster, the series never found its audience, and a second series never materialized. The reasons for its lack of success were many, but the lack of strongly defined characters certainly didn’t help matters.
It’s not just fairly obscure Belgian sitcoms which suffer from this problem, though. Not Going Out, the new BBC comedy series starring stand-up comedians Lee Mack and Tim Vine, is in exactly the same boat. Now, this show has been successful (series three has been ordered), and it’s a great vehicle for Mack’s stand-up persona. But in series one, Lee’s flatmate and potential love interest Kate (Megan Dodds) was funny, level-headed, and self-assured one moment, humour-impaired, insecure and frankly insane the next (she sincerely tries to turn a dog into a vegetarian, for instance). In season two, Kate was replaced by career-girl Lucy (Sally Bretton), Tim’s younger sister, who moves in with Lee but quickly falls in love with the much older Guy (Simon Dutton). Once again, both characters are ill-defined. Guy is the worst offender : in his introductory episode he’s thought to be gay (he isn’t, but does hang around in a gay club in the afternoon), later he’s discovered to be the owner of a lapdance club (as well as being a successful ‘ordinary’ businessman), and finally he’s sinister enough to be thought a gangster. Simon Dutton struggles manfully with the part, but it’s a relief all around when Lucy (arbitrarily) dumps him in the final episode of season 2. Lucy’s love for Guy is equally unfounded – at no time during the series do we get the feeling that her emotions are based on anything but the dramatic need for there to be an obstacle between her and Lee.
So what are the underlying causes for this phenomenon? I think there are two main offenders:
1) Placing plot before character. The writer(s) come up with a really funny situation for the lead character, and the secondary character is then forced into a role which allows that situation to occur. Two good examples from Not Going Out, season two: in the aforementioned episode which introduces Guy, Lucy and Lee have to think he’s gay. This is so that Lee can pretend to be gay as well in order to go to football matches with Guy as his ‘date’. Guy spends much of the episode ‘testing’ Lee to see whether he’s faking his sexual orientation or not. But since Guy isn’t gay, what does he care if Lee is ‘honestly’ homosexual? What’s really going on is that Lee having to pretend to be gay is a powerful comedic situation. Unfortunately, Guy’s integrity as a character is sacrificed in order to get to the funny stuff. In a later episode Lucy suddenly decides to open an art gallery – just so that Lee can pretend to be an expert and give her disastrous buying advice, which she then foolishly takes. Just for the record, I like Not Going Out, which is one of the only good mainstream UK sitcoms of recent years. It’s just that these weaknesses in characterization keep it from becoming an all-time classic.
2) ‘Fear of commitment’. Once you decide how your characters act and think, a lot of avenues are closed off. And yes, there will be ideas which can no longer be implemented, and yes, sometimes that will be regrettable. But the benefits of clearly defining your characters far outweigh these minor annoyances. Not only are you able to create better plots, which flow from the nature of your characters and therefore are more truthful and affecting, but you will also allow the actor playing the role to really bring the character fully to life. Otherwise, they will have to interpret the role and make some personal choices which might not be good for the script – or for the series as a whole.
How do you remedy this situation, once it occurs? Put the character first. Forget about plots and situations, make sure that you arrive at a psychological profile that makes sense and is multi-layered. In certain cases, you will be able to use what’s written already to help you out. Maybe it’s disjointed, but try to find a psychological model which makes sense out of what you already have. Then it’s a question of filling in the blanks, or finding a basic motivation or contradiction within the character which creates the necessary guiding framework. You may even find that what seems an incoherent mess actually already holds the seeds of the solution within it.
As an example from my own experience: when I rejoined FC De Kampioenen as script-editor after having been away for several years, I was faced with a new character, Maurice, whom I didn't understand at all. The actor playing the character, Tuur De Weerdt, an excellent thespian with a very broad range, managed to make the character work on screen, but nevertheless Maurice was not defined well enough for me to know how he should be used in the storylines. He was polite, lived with a very domineering mother, belonged to the nobility but kept this hidden, and knew everything about anything (sort of a Cliff Clavin who actually got his facts right). He was also deliberatly designed to be mysterious, but the core of his mystery was not known. And this was the main problem: at the heart of the character was an empty space, waiting to be filled.
So we did a brainstorm about Maurice, talking through the several options and trying to find a framework which made all the disparate elements fall into place. The most recent script in which Maurice was featured had him participate in a beer-tasting competition: he knew everything there was to know about the different types of beer but refused to drink any. Once he was forced to, he immediately lost all inhibitions and became roaring drunk.
Using this incident as a springboard, we decided that Maurice used to be a hell-raising playboy when he was young, who managed to lose the family fortune at the roulette table. Feeling guilty, he consciously suppressed his wild side, let his mother dominate him to keep hem in check, and became the opposite of the bad boy he had been before. However, the darkness was still inside him, and in order to satisfy his hunger for intoxicating experiences, he started to read and study voraciously. His encyclopedic knowledge about every topic known to man stemmed from his attempts to experience the fullness of life at one remove.
Once we knew this, it opened up a lot of possibilities. We gave Maurice a dormant gambling addiction, it was revealed he was a frequent visitor of a brothel - where he did nothing but talk to the girls, and he also showed traces of obsessive-compulsive behaviour, an externalization of his need to keep his 'dark side' under control. As a character, Maurice was brought into focus, and every writer now knew what made him tick exactly. And best of all, the new character description still allowed us enormous leeway. We didn't really close off any options, the character was far richer than before and the comedic options increased exponentially.
And in case you're wondering: the audience doesn't know about this backstory at all (though at some point it may be revealed if an episode asks for it). They don't need it to enjoy the character. But for writers, directors and actors, this type of clarity is absolutely essential.