Creating Comedy Characters by Matthew Carless

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Creating Comedy Characters

by Matthew Carless.
Characterisation is perhaps the main reason why so many scripts are turned down by the Comedy Development Unit.
The characters that force us to reject scripts are very often one dimensional or stereotypes. That means that the reader often finds the characters do not have any life to them, and if they do, they are pre-moulded, predictable cardboard cut-outs that we are all familiar with.
This article is a bit different from previous ones in the sense that I'm going to try and make it less philosophical and more "workshoppy" than usual. Writers may want to keep it handy to work from when creating characters for their sitcoms. It must be stressed, however, that this is not a religious set of ground rules that MUST be followed, but rather something that will hopefully lead writers in the right direction when thinking about how to create their "people".

Creating Characters
You've decided you want to write a sitcom. Perhaps you already know the setting - which is fine. Forget that for the moment. One of the first things to do is to think about who will appear in your series - your main character/s. So then it's perhaps a good idea to put everything aside for now and just concentrate on creating a great, funny and memorable sitcom character. We can always go back to your setting later. Maybe it won't be relevant anymore and you want to change it. That's all part of the creative process. The characters are going to be the most important part of your concept.
A house is not built by sticking a load of bricks onto some grass. If it was, it would collapse before it was even finished. But it does have several feet of foundation below the surface. Material that we do not see, and do not NEED to see, but is essential to that house's existence. It's what makes the house survive. A good, well-rounded fictional character is created in EXACTLY the same way. And it is something that a lot of new writers overlook.
For a character to really work, you must know him or her inside out. This can only happen by building a foundation - that is to say it is important to invent the character's lifestyle, childhood, background and basic personality before any part of your script can be written. What we see on screen is really only the tip of the iceberg and is the sum of everything that has happened to that character in the past.
The more background you create for your characters, the more believable they will appear in the script.
If you've done your work properly, writing the character will come easily. You'll know things like whether they say "hello" or "hiya", what they drink, what TV shows they like to watch, and so on. So a good way to start inventing a new person is to work on something like the following example checklist. This is by no means a complete list, and writers should feel at liberty to add other questions as they see fit, but it is a good place to start. For arguments sake, we're looking at developing a character for a sitcom.
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?

By writing a paragraph or two for each of these points, you'll get a pretty good idea of how your comedy character ticks and by now should be getting some ideas for the various situations and stories you are going to throw him or her into.
Paul Mayhew-Archer (writer, producer, script editor and all-round comedy genius) always says that it is extremely useful to try and give each of your characters a "handle" preceded by "Mr" or "Mrs" - like "Mr Fussy" or "Mrs Happy" etc. Try doing this. If you can't, maybe you should have another think about your character.

Naming Your Characters
In his book 'The Art of Fiction', David Lodge tells us that character names are just as important as creating the character itself. The name acts as a symbol. Choose your names wisely. They can help immensely to characterise your cast.

Charles Dickens is arguably the best author in literature to pull off this idea. Think about some of the names he came up with: Oliver Twist, Pecksniff, Tiny Tim and, of course, Scrooge. In fact, the name Scrooge has become so famous over the years that it now counts as a word to describe people who are tight with their money. Another example is to think of why the film title 'Monty Python's Life of Brian' wasn't called something like 'Monty Python's Life of Richard' (or some other name!). That's a tacky example, I know, and I'm not out to offend anyone called Richard, but it is something worth thinking about.

Writing a Character Summary
Now that you have reams and reams of details about your character's background, it may well be a worthwhile exercise to try and summarise it all into a paragraph. This is sort of the next step up from Paul Mayhew-Archer's "Mr and Mrs" exercise. Think about how you would describe your character to a mate in the pub using a few more details.
But here's the crunch: try and do it in no more than 200 words. Around 150 words is best. It is possible. Concentrate on what your character is like and why, focusing on primary traits and comic flaws, rather than physical make-up and career history - although it is important to include this information albeit briefly. Say more with less. Try to use a single word when describing elements of your character - and try to make it an entertaining word. What your character would do if s/he won the lottery or what his/her parents do for a living isn't necessarily relevant, but it is extremely important for you as the writer to know this.
Of course, this biography will be for your information only as it is not required as part of a script submission and probably wouldn't be read anyway - so to some it may seem like a complete waste of time! But refining your thoughts and writing a really good and concise biography can never go against you and the more you know your character, the better. And when you've done your biography, describe the character in one line: "My sitcom is about a... who is... but... because....". That sort of thing.
Tip: As a personal exercise, you may want to watch some episodes of a sitcom you enjoy and try writing a biography of the main character/s. Get to know what their primary traits and flaws are and how they get into hot water leading to the comic situations.
On a final note: creating characters should be fun. So above all else - enjoy it!

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