Paper Team

Alex and Nick invite writer/producer Hilliard Guess for an in-depth discussion about his experience in the industry, working as a writer, and his involvement in the WGA and his Screenwriter’s Rant Room podcast.

How do you build a writing career without the traditional assistant or fellowship route? What are key differences in being a producer or writer, and juggling both roles? What are aspects of the WGA people should know more about? How do you overcome adversity and get things done? What are ways of putting yourself out there and opening doors?

The Paper Team goes rogue…

NOTE: We had a bit of noise on the line, and my upstairs neighbors decided to join in on the fun towards the end of the recording. We tried to fix most of the issue, but be aware there may be some residual audio.

SHOWNOTES

Content

Starting out, becoming a writer, getting writing jobs, being a producer, curating your work environment, being involved in the WGA, dealing with adversity, and the competition (00:01:22)
Resources and Next Week On (01:10:22)

Links

Hilliard Guess on Twitter
The Screenwriter’s Rant Room on iTunes
The Screenwriter’s Rant Room on Twitter
Hilldog Productions
Palo Alto (California)
Dangerous Minds
John Truby
Robert McKee
Jack Epps Jr.
Karl Iglesias
Z Nation
28 Days Later
World War Z (Film)
Two and a Half Men
Jaws
Million Dollar Listings
Million Dollar Listing New York
Fredrik Eklund
The Lot Studios
go90
WGA’s LGBT Writers Committee
WGA’s Committee of Black Writers
Lena Waithe
Michelle Amor
Dr. Phil (TV Series)
Dope
Straight Outta Compton (Film)
Wonder Woman (Film)
A Few Good Men
Precious (Film)
Mo’Nique
3rd & Fairfax WGAW Podcast
Lisa Bolekaja
Organization of Black Screenwriters
Kramer vs. Kramer
Jay Mohr
Mark Valley
Lynelle White
Army Wives
“Writing Action and Dialogue (126)” – The Screenwriter’s Rant Room

Resources

Pilar Alessandra’s On the Page
“Coffee Break Screenwriter” – Pilar Alessandra
Jen Grisanti
“The Sequence Approach” – Paul Gulino

This episode brought to you by Tracking Board’s Launch Pad Writing Competitions

Use code PAPERTEAM to get $15 OFF when you enter a Launch Pad Competition

Special thanks to Alex Switzky for helping us edit this episode.

If you enjoyed this episode (and others), please consider leaving us an iTunes review at paperteam.co/itunes! :)

You can find Paper Team on Twitter:
Alex@TVCalling
Nick@_njwatson
If you have any questions, comments or feedback, you can e-mail us: [email protected]

PT46 shownotes and audio episode available here.

This Paper Team transcript brought to you by Tracking Board’s Launch Pad Competitions. Use code PAPERTEAM to get $15 OFF when you enter a Launch Pad Competition

Alex Freedman: Welcome to Paper Team, a podcast about television writing and becoming a TV writer. I’m Alex Freedman, @TVCalling.

Nick Watson: And I’m Nick Watson, @_njwatson.

Alex: And today, we’re gonna be talking about TV characters 101. Why are characters so important to TV writing? What are some key elements to watch out for when writing them? And how can you make them interesting people?

A Special Announcement

Alex: And just before we get to talking about characters…

Nick: We wanted to mention that we’re gonna be trying out a new segment at the top of the show in about two weeks, and what we’re gonna do is essentially just cover miscellaneous and any timely or relevant topics that maybe don’t warrant an entire episode but that we want to be able to talk about.

Alex: In a couple weeks I’ll be probably giving a review of Shonda Rhimes’ themed MasterClass because a few people have requested that I would go through the trouble of looking and enjoying and partaking in this master class, so I’ll give you updates on that.

Nick: And I had a question on Twitter about going into a little more detail on pitching and even what kind of shows are being over pitched or what is there too much of? So you know my day job is in production and management and stuff so I think I can give a few insights into that but we didn’t wanna do an entire episode on it, so we’ll cover those kinda things.

Alex: It’s gonna be an awesome hot take segment at the top of the show, so tune in for that.

1 – Television is a character’s medium

Nick: Let’s talk characters. So, I think we both agree in general that TV is more of a character’s medium, it’s character driven more so than plot driven, right?

Alex: Yeah, the reason why people tune in week after week to shows is because they care about seeing what and how the characters we write are doing. Even in procedurals like CSI or House, you’re not tuning in just for the mechanics of whatever crime or disease is being solved, you’re tuning in to watch how the characters decide to solve those issues. All while being entertained by smartass comments by Hugh Laurie for example. And that is why you can’t really write a plot driven pilot as in the main draw is the plot. No network wants to buy an abstract narrative construct that has no soul. I think John August once said that characters are the flower that holds the cake together, while a story is the sugar. If you put too much sugar, the cake just falls apart. So character in a way are really what makes television what it is.

2 – Describing characters: introductions, archetypes, and traits

Alex: Let’s dig in to the characters themselves. What kind of people are we gonna wanna see in a script?

Nick: It’s important for us to first talk about character types or archetypes. I think we’re all familiar with a lot of these archetypes, particularly in different genres. So in your high school TV shows, you’ve got your jock, your cheerleader, your nerd, your rebel bad boy. In those kind of group-of-friends sitcoms, you’ve got the lovable loser, the casanova, the tightly wound neurotic professional, and the eccentric weirdo. And maybe in sci-fi shows you’ve got the leader, the warrior, the tech genius, and the alien. We’re all super familiar with those.

Alex: Who are we Nick, in those archetypes?

[chuckle]

Nick: Who are we? I would say I’m…

Alex: Wait, I think you’re the casanova.

Nick: Oh, really? Oh, that’s very nice of you. I was gonna say that I was the eccentric… Tightly wound neurotic professional. Let’s say that.

Alex: The neurotic professional, alright.

Nick: I’m definitely the alien in the sci-fi.

[chuckle]

Alex: Wait, I thought we were both aliens.

Nick: We’re both aliens, don’t tell anyone. I’m an alien of extraordinary ability, legally, that’s a legal classification.

Alex: Oh, legally. Wait, do you put that on your resume? [chuckle]

Nick: I should from now on.

Alex: There are also archetypes within the overall character’s journey. I always recommend Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, as well as Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. They may not be a device to follow literally throughout every script, but there are at least interesting bases to learn more about those elements.

Nick: You do have to be careful with some of those books that are geared towards feature writing, as it doesn’t always apply, but there are definitely things you can take away from it that are really helpful. Speaking of archetypes and stereotypes and things like that, audience expectations are really important and we’ve talked about them a lot before. Audiences come into a show with pre-existing expectations based off of their experiences of the real world, of other shows on TV and particularly in that genre, and also just of storytelling techniques in character archetypes they’ve seen time and time again on the screen. You never really start with a blank slate and you always have to make conscious decisions to either confirm or deny those audience expectations. How and when you do that is up to you to play with.

Alex: And another big element to consider when you’re crafting those characters is how do they fit in amongst each other? Are we talking about supporting characters? An ensemble? One lead? How does that work?

Nick: It’s really important to think about is your show focused tightly on one character and that character’s struggles and everyone else takes a backseat to them, or are we splitting our time equally between a full ensemble of characters and their goals as a team. It is kind of a sliding scale between those two, it’s not always one or the other.

Alex: Right. I think the key is having a balance between those characters in that cast. Don’t just create an ensemble cast of characters because you want to match that epicness and scale of the awesome world you just created. Make these people mean something to the story and to each other. A lot of new writers think of Game of Thrones as their template, and then write a sprawling assortment of characters in their 50-page script and that just cannot work. You need to build momentum for your characters and that includes spending some screen-time with them. Game of Thrones is an anomaly for many reasons, not the least of which is that it’s based on a series of books. And yet, if you look at the pilot of the show, it’s still only really about a couple of storylines, namely the Stark family, and if you really look at it on a granular level, it is even more so Ned Stark’s story. So even in an ensemble piece, there still needs to be some kind of a lead in your pilot. Who is the audience gonna be seeing that story through? Otherwise, if you don’t have anyone in particular, we won’t really care about the whole show because we won’t be attached to anyone in particular.

Nick: You need that point of view character. And even if that changes from episode to episode and it doesn’t always stay that person, you need to make a decision at least in the pilot. Speaking of the supporting characters around them, I think you wanna look to have them reflect different facets of that central character, that point of view character, and the choices that that person could make. They’re almost like the little angels and devils on someone’s shoulder pulling them in one direction or another. To go back to those archetypes, if your problem of the week is that the central character is trying to go on a successful date, then your casanova is gonna be teaching him sleazy moves and pick-up lines, while the neurotic professional is gonna give them a questionnaire to make sure their potential partner’s life goals and interests line up with theirs perfectly. And if they’re trying to figure out what to do for a date, the casanova is gonna suggest Netflix and chill, and the neurotic is gonna suggest a formal dinner with a bunch of rules like, “You don’t kiss on the first date and you gotta play hard to get.” And those are two extremes from which a central character could choose.

Alex: You suggested to Netflix and chill earlier, so you are the casanova, Nick.

[chuckle]

Nick: Maybe I am. Another thing I think that is also important to reflect on is the characters’ dynamics with each other. Often people will write a cast of characters and then have them only interact with the plot, rather than thinking about actually what these characters think about each other, whether they like each other, whether they have a conflict with each other in their past, things like that. How they interact with each other is gonna be just as important as how they’re interacting with whatever external events are happening in your story.

Alex: And now let’s talk about how are you gonna be conveying those characters in your actual script. And the first element, the first big element, is the character introduction. That means when we first meet them or even when they’re being described by other people, in that script. So first impressions really, really matter. You always want to convey in those first moments who that character is as a person, through either what they do or say. And it’s especially vital with that first scene when we meet them. Think about how Jack is introduced in the pilot of Lost. He wakes up in the middle of a bamboo forest wearing a suit. He’s disoriented. He starts running through the jungle towards a loud revving sound in the distance.

Alex: He gets to the beach, sees the plane crash and the first thing he does is run towards the crash to help people. He’s our lead. Now contrast that with how Locke is portrayed in the same episode. The first time you really are introduced to him it’s minutes later when he’s kind of sitting on a piece of the wreckage, eyes fixed on the water. He’s staring to nothingness and doesn’t really respond when Hurley comes talking to him and that’s because he’s transfixed by what is happening to him because, spoiler alert, he just got the use of his legs back.

Nick: The context in which a character is being presented to the audience is just as important as how you present them or describe them. You really wanna make the most of this, none of that BS just waking up in the morning, sitting in an office cubicle or driving their car to work. Use unique settings, the actions that they’re currently engaged in, that again, tell us things about them. And like Alex was saying, the juxtaposition of things, like Jack waking up in a bamboo forest in a suit and then it’s a plane crash. You’re just using those expectations and twisting them around and subverting them to your advantage.

Alex: You know what you should definitely do in your next pilot? Is have a character wake up with an alarm, in his bed.

Nick: Roll over and hit the snooze button again and then they drag themselves out of bed and they… Oh, my God. Please stop doing that ever.

Alex: Context is so important. Maybe it’s other people talking about that character and that shadow that they cast over them. The West Wing is a great example of the major character, I.e., the president, only introduced towards the end of the script. And that is because the show is about the people around him but at the end of the day they’re still defined by him, by his wants and needs. In fact if you look at the teaser of the pilot, it’s kind of a perfect encapsulation of just that. Now compare that to the opening scene of the Scandal pilot by Shonda Rhimes, it’s two characters talking at a bar about the lead of our show, Olivia Pope. It goes against everything we’ve ever been taught about “Show, don’t tell.” Now, does it work? Well, you be the judge. But just be aware that there are different ways of introducing characters to the audience besides literally showing them.

Nick: And let’s talk a little bit more about how you actually write that character description then.

Alex: Even before we go into that, let me ask you, Nick. What are some of your favorite lines or character descriptions in a script?

Nick: Well, this one’s not TV but it’s one that’s always stuck out at me. It’s from the movie Michael Clayton, written by Tony Gilroy. And the description is, “Marty Bach looks up from his papers. He’s 70. It’s his name on the door. Big power. Sweet eyes. A thousand neckties. A velvet switchblade.” It’s very kind of poetic and succinct but it doesn’t overdo it and it just tells you a lot about this guy in very few words.

Alex: I’m already imagining the vermouth in his hands.

Nick: How about you? What’s your favorite?

Alex: Well, just going back to the pilot of The West Wing. It’s not my all time favorite, but I really love this introduction of the Sam Seaborn character. I’ll just read the short paragraph in the pilot of The West Wing that goes, “The well dressed and powerful are having after dinner drinks in the hotel bar. Sam Seaborn, 31, is at a table having a conversation with a reporter he’d rather not be having. What Sam would rather be doing is talking to one of the two women at the bar, particularly the one who seems to be checking him out.” Now, in just those few lines you get a complete picture of who that character is. He’s important, he’s well known, and he’s a womanizer and that’s all you need to write to convey all those elements in a couple of sentences.

Nick: Exactly. And on the surface it might seem to some people like, “Well, you’re saying things about him that we can’t see.” That is gonna be reflected in how the actor portrays that character. He’s gonna be glancing over at the bar, he’s gonna look like he’s not having a very good time with whoever he’s talking to right now. So it’s nothing like, “Sam is currently thinking about the time that he was with this woman.” Like it’s none that stuff… “Sam is feeling like this.” It’s all stuff we can see.

Alex: Nonetheless, I would agree that the only place I feel like you could sort of get away with writing something the audience is not gonna see is in character description because it’s about that sense of who they are as people. In an abstract vacuum, it’s hard to convey that in a few words that are literally about what is shown, so sometimes you can cheat and get away with that subversion.

Nick: Yeah, I agree. I think you’re allowed to cheat a little bit there if you do it well, and if it informs us about the character in a really good way. But I wanna contrast that level of detail or poeticness or that kind of thing with the simplicity of what you often get in comedy. And the example I’m gonna use is Community, the pilot of Community. We have Annie who is Alison Brie’s character and she’s introduced simply as 18, tightly wound, sweater vest. And then Troy, who’s Donald Glover’s character is introduced as 18, letter jacket, all American. So they are deliberately playing into these archetypes that we are familiar with, almost these high school archetypes except, obviously, it’s a community college and these people are basically still trapped in that Arrested Development stage of their lives.

Nick: But often, all you need are those two or three meaningful descriptors and that can cover a lot of ground. And like we said before, contrast, conflict, and paradoxes all really help, especially if you wanna add some uniqueness to those archetypes. For example, you might have a very well spoken, intelligent guy who looks and dresses like trailer trash. It’s all about audience expectations again. The worst thing you can do, in my opinion, is under describe your characters when we first meet them, because I guarantee the reader’s gonna forget who they are a few pages later especially if they are in the mix in a big scene with a lot people. If you describe everyone as “age, pretty.”

[laughter]

Nick: Very rarely is it useful to describe how attractive your characters are. They’re actors, they’re all gonna be good looking or at least, “TV ugly.”

[chuckle]

Alex: TV ugly. Is that who we are, Nick? Are we TV ugly?

Nick: I hope so.

Alex: That is the main issue with describing something just based on their physical appearance. If you’re only doing it because you’re describing an actor-type instead of the actual character himself or herself, you’ve already lost the battle. Describing physical traits in and of themselves means nothing unless you ascribe meaning to them. It’s all about contrasting them with the world, as we keep saying, the story, the characters, everything. If you’re saying a character is gorgeous, it needs to be relevant to the narrative. For example, you’re specifically pointing out why they look so good in comparison to someone else.

Nick: And you may have noticed in those character descriptions, there was a lot of description about hair and wardrobe and makeup. You might think, “Well, that’s a job for people on set.” But this is actually one of those occasions where it’s useful to play director a little bit, because what the character wears, for example how they cut or style their hair, how they do their makeup, they’re all choices. Those choices reflect who these people are. Do they wear band T-shirts and ripped jeans? Or a button up shirt and khakis, and short shorts and a crop top? Do they have long, messy hair or a buzz cut? Do they accessorize with bangles and crystals or do they just wear a simple wedding band? Do they have tattoos? All that kind of stuff. These all tell us something about character from assumptions that we are making about these people and people that we see in real life who wear those things or do those things. And as a writer, you can either play into those assumptions or subvert them accordingly. You are setting the expectations then and there.

Alex: And speaking of expectations, I did wanna talk about ethnicity in the description. The one part about physical appearance that can equally be discussed as everything we’ve been talking about is whether or not to include ethnicity in a character’s description. Now my rule of thumb is that I feel like I will either include ethnicity for all my characters or none of my characters. Now, the unfortunate truth about the world we live in is that a lot of readers see white as the default character description, when it just should not be. If you’re pointing out that a specific character is African-American or Asian-American, but don’t comment on other characters in the same way, who are meant to be white, that is by definition perpetuating that issue.

Alex: On the flipside, you can not comment on any ethnicity with the understanding that the story itself will make things clear or will leave it up to the readers’ interpretation. Now you can also subvert it and/or point it out in interesting ways. A friend of mine wrote a script taking place in an African-American community, and made it clear that all the characters were black and then proceeded to highlight in character descriptions the handful of white characters. So I think that’s a clever way of subverting that idea.

Nick: Another way I’ve seen around that is, in the character’s name perhaps, to give them something that sounds like they belong to a particular…

Alex: Right.

Nick: Thing, but it is certainly an issue when people assume that white is the default and so there is an argument to be made for deliberately writing in ethnicities to ensure diverse casting in things, because if you do leave it blank then maybe if this gets made they’re just gonna cast a bunch of white people or something.

Alex: Right, but it goes back to the story itself and how you interpret it. If you write the story in Harlem or some community that’s specifically represented by some kind of minority then hopefully, the reader will understand if he or she really cares about that world otherwise what’s the point?

Nick: Yeah. And so there are also other visual choices that we can make as writers beyond that initial character description and that includes visual imagery and metaphors that suggest things about characters in a tangible way on screen. Everything from how they decorate their home and what kind of car they drive, what they keep on their desk at work, to using motifs and metaphors like, I don’t know, a black wolf that follows someone around or someone who has trippy dreams or nightmares, and using the imagery in those to reflect their inner struggles or their fears with the things that plague them.

Alex: The reason why we’re spending so long talking about character description or character introduction is that when you introduce your lead in a script, that is often a make-or-break point. If your introduction to that character is bad then that probably means you don’t really understand your character and if your character is bad, then the rest of your script probably is as well. Since as we’ve said, characters are the key to television.

3 – Character voices, filler characters, and empathy

Alex: Now let’s talk look some elements that may not be physical traits of those characters. What are some examples of that?

Nick: One thing that people talk about a lot is a character’s voice. And usually what that means is the uniqueness of their dialogue in contrast with the other characters in the story. There’s this old adage that you should be able to cover up all the character names in a script and still know who is talking by what they say and how they say those things.

Alex: Right. If you take a listen back to our dialogue episode, we did a whole rant on the specificities of creating a character through the way they speak whether that is the stutter, or an accent, or maybe the way they confuse certain words with other words. So, I think that’s… I completely agree with Nick that having the voice of a character clear in their dialogue is another way of pointing out who they truly are.

Nick: And that is different to your voice as a writer as well, which is another thing usually more in the prose and description, which we’ll do an episode on in a couple weeks. And so, the other one aside from character voice is character point of view or POV. And this is more how a character sees the world differently from the other characters. And then how that informs their interactions with both the world and their supporting characters and friends.

Alex: I feel like that’s something that’s almost underrepresented in television, where you can use for example an unreliable narrator to tell an interesting perspective. You can take your reader and audience on a journey. Have you seen Legion, Nick?

Nick: Yes, absolutely.

Alex: That’s an amazing master class on unreliable narrator and taking the audience on a different perspective in the world.

Nick: In comedy, particularly, point of view is very, very important and it’s something they teach in a lot of improv and sketch writing. Your character always has a point of view on the world and that’s going to usually in a comedic way influence every single thing they do.

Alex: Is that specifically so they butt heads with the other characters?

Nick: Yeah, pretty much. It’s gonna cause conflict and as a result, comedy.

Alex: It’s kind of what’s happening in our world, right?

[chuckle]

Nick: Yeah. Donald Trump has a very different point of view than most sane human beings.

[chuckle]

Alex: Speaking of useless characters.

[chuckle]

Alex: What are some filler characters and things to watch out for, to not make someone useless in a story?

Nick: Like I was saying with comedy, you really wanna focus on humor that is character driven and that is unique to that character rather than them just being mouthpieces for generic jokes or gags. There’s this temptation always to come up with a funny joke in a vacuum or maybe something that you would say as a person or a writer, and then try and force it into a character’s mouth rather than have it originate from you thinking about, “How would this character genuinely react?” Or, “What would their take on the situation be and how that reflects who they are?” This is how you get what I like to call Sorkinitis, where every character down to the mailroom boy sounds like Oscar Wilde.

Alex: Nick, I’m sorry but you’ve got Sorkinitis.

Nick: Is it fatal? [chuckle]

Alex: It is. You gotta walk and talk really fast.

[laughter]

Alex: But yeah, there are similar issues also with characters that are just there for exposition, especially in science fiction or with genre pieces. Why are they there in the first place? If they are only there to provide technobabble to make it believable for the audience that what is happening is happening or they are there just to provide exposition, then you have gone the wrong path with that character.

Nick: Another thing I wanna touch on briefly is building audience engagement or investment with a character. Another way to think about that might be empathy with a character. Now, what’s really important is it doesn’t mean they have to be likable or a good person. Those two things are not the same. An audience can be invested or engaged with a character and they could be a terrible person. A couple of the tips or tricks or tools that you can use to make the audience engage with your characters, particularly a central character, and this is something you wanna do very early on in your script, if you choose to do this, are a couple of these things. Firstly, they can demonstrate admirable traits, like loyalty or love or courage, especially when it’s towards other people and at a cost to themselves like they’re self-sacrificing. Another thing you can do is have them be really good at something whether that’s winning cases as a lawyer, or saving lives, or being super smart or charming. It’s like they’re superpower or whatever.

Nick: Another thing you can do is have them be treated or currently being treated unjustly. They’re either in danger or they’re grieving some loss that has happened to them. That automatically gets us on their side. Another one is make your character unique or attention grabbing in some way. The character of House MD is very… Visually he’s walking with a limp, he’s got that attitude, he’s very unique and memorable. For a feature example think of Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men.” He has that really distinct voice, he has that weird haircut, he has a very particular way about him, and he is just super attention grabbing and he stands out from everyone else. Lastly you can… And you should be doing this anyway, but make sure that your character is facing some sort of inner struggle. They’re attempting to overcome their fears or make a change in their lives and especially if we as the audience can relate to those goals, they’re universal. To be loved, to succeed at work, to lose weight like in “This is Us” or something.

Alex: At the end of the day it’s about having the audience care about your character in some way and that means creating some kind of emotional reaction to that character, one way or the other. And that’s the optimal way to go. And you brought up, Nick, this idea that they’re really good at something and one way of looking at characters is figuring out, “What is their superpower?” And I think that solves a lot of issues in terms of, “What is the point of that character to begin with?” Especially if you’re writing a procedural or a similar very structural narrative, you wanna think about, “Why are they there doing what they’re doing in the story?”

Nick: Yeah, and the same way that with plot and the story, you wanna think about, “Why today? Why are we coming to this story right now?” You wanna think about, “Why these people? Why are these the most interesting people that we can be watching, particularly for this situation and this premise?”

Alex: Whatever that sliding scale is, depends on obviously the content and the story and the characters. But in my mind, it comes down to building nuance and interesting characters. Complex characters will always save you when you’re stuck with a plot. Whereas I feel like the opposite is never true. If you’re stuck in the story, you’re just stuck in story until you figure out a way out. But if you have compelling characters, maybe they can lead the way to that solution. Ultimately if you have to pick between writing awesome people or in a kind of intricate mechanism that is compelling on a structural level, always pick the former not the latter.

4 – Characters in the story: goals and arcs

Nick: Let’s talk about how these characters are actually represented within the story, on the page, on the screen. How can we take something immaterial, like what kind of person someone is and then show it in a visual medium like television? Dialogue isn’t the only tool we have available to us as writers.

Alex: Yeah, the first way of doing that is through action. Action informs character. That is, really if you think about it, the only way to inform the audience about who they are and I mean who they really are, not some resume information or some baggage exposition. What they do matters more than what people say about them as well, which is why showing is more interesting than telling. Practically that means putting your characters at a crossroad and watching them as they make that decision. A great example of that is in Spiderman when the villain makes the hero choose between saving the woman he loves or saving a group of innocent. What is he gonna do? There’s been a similar choice done in the Dark Knight, where Batman has to choose whether to save his love or Harvey Dent. He ends up saving the latter, Harvey Dent, because The Joker actually knew that he would pick his lover so he flipped those choices.

Nick: Yeah, exactly, so it’s not just action but it’s choices and decisions. If your character sees someone drop their wallet, they pick up the wallet, take out the cash and toss it away or do they chase that person down and hand it back? You really wanna be throwing opportunities, temptations, and catch-22s at your character and the decisions that they make in those situations, will show us who they are.

Alex: It’s basically like when you’re walking down Ralph’s, like one of the aisles at Ralph’s, in the candy aisle, and you’re considering, “Hmm, should I pick that bag of M&M’s or should I eat something healthy?”

Nick: And not just that, but particularly in comedy again, often these choices and these decisions and catch-22s should be reflective of the core inner struggle of your character. A lot of superhero stories are about their choice between their personal life and their duties as a superhero. And so constantly that, if it’s a TV show every episode they’re gonna be faced with the decision of, “Do I go and help my family and my friends, or do I need to do what’s good for the greater good and follow my duty?” And all that kind of thing. So whatever your character’s core conflict is, find a way to reflect that through choices and decisions in every episode of your show.

Alex: Right. And I feel like that connects directly to the reason why they’re doing what they’re doing which is, characters like people who need to have a purpose. And I don’t mean they need to have a purpose for the story, I mean themselves need to have a purpose in their lives. In other words, a goal. This goal should inform their decision making throughout your story.

Nick: Exactly. The entire reason for a character to start somewhere, be introduced in a pilot, is to finish up somewhere else, except for maybe hard reset sitcoms. Whatever corner you paint your protagonist or team into in the pilot, whatever crucible you have concocted to test them, it’s gonna take them on a character journey and it’s pretty much on three levels, external, internal, and thematic. They’re gonna physically go through trials and tribulations in the pilot and in each episode and even across all the seasons. And then those external plot events are gonna force them to confront and try to overcome their inner conflicts in doing so. And when they succeed or fail, ultimately it speaks to something thematic, a universal lesson or message about ourselves or the world around us.

Nick: Like our friend Garry was saying the other day, Neil Gaiman’s quote about the first story we ever told around the campfire was, “I went over there and a big cat tried to eat me so don’t go over there.” That’s a story in its most basic premise. Our stories now are more complex and nuanced and they instead teach us lessons or precautionary tales about for example, finding love or fulfillment, how to overcome our fears, what the experiences are of people who are not like us, exploring and raising awareness of social and moral issues instead.

Alex: It’s like Maslow’s pyramid of needs. Now we don’t need to escape big cats, so we think about other things.

Nick: Yeah, now we’re up in that very top of the pyramid which I think he calls “self-actualization”.

[chuckle]

Alex: And a good way to think about character arcs in the story is in terms of character needs versus wants. The long-term payoff of a TV show is often linked to a character’s wants and needs. Think about writing what they need as the opposite of what they want, ie, their goal. If a character is spending his entire time trying to resurrect his dead wife, then what he really needs is to let her go. Now obviously you want things to happen in between, like maybe she comes back to life and she isn’t quite how he remembered her but having contrasting wants and needs is a good narrative way to push your characters forward.

Nick: That’s important to note that characters don’t always know what they need, and they discover that along the way.

Alex: Right. It’s like that Rolling Stone song, right?

Nick: Exactly.

[chuckle]

Takeaways and Resources

Nick: What are the takeaways from today’s episode?

Alex: Number one, TV is a character’s medium. People are tuning in to see how and why characters do things more so than the things themselves.

Nick: Number two, TV is also a visual medium so you wanna find ways to express character through actions, choices, visual description and imagery on top of just dialogue and exposition.

Alex: Number three, every character needs a reason to exist like us, [chuckle] either as a contrast to other characters or to serve a role in the larger story.

Nick: Number four, characters are defined by where they start and where they end up, as well as how they choose to pursue that goal along the way. Consider their external, internal, and thematic journeys.

Alex: And, Nick, do you have any resources about character?

Nick: Yeah. There’s this book that I read a little while back when I was doing my master’s that… It’s called The Art of Dramatic Writing by… I believe the author’s name is Lajos Egri.

Alex: Say it three times really fast.

[chuckle]

Nick: It’s spelled L-A-J-O-S space E-G-R-I. And this is an old school book published back in 1942, and I believe it was largely focused on writing stage plays and traditional fiction but he really goes into a lot of depth on knowing your characters and who they are before you write. And apparently, there’s also a follow-up book called The Art of Creative Writing which I haven’t read but apparently that delves even more into character development and motivation, so maybe try that one, too, or even instead of this one. What’s your resource?

Alex: Well, this week my resource is the Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It’s a great dictionary, specifically to find interesting ways of conveying your character’s emotions to the reader. Now the book highlights several emotions and lists ideas for body language queues, visceral responses, and other visual elements to really show the emotion inside. They also have other dictionaries for other kinds of character based elements, but I thought that was the most interesting of them.

Nick: Oh, sounds cool. That’s like, as we’ve always been saying, you find a way to describe visually how someone’s feeling rather than saying, “This character is feeling X.” And so it sounds like that’d be a really great tool for that.

Alex: Yes, it the perfect encapsulation of “Show, don’t tell,” which I feel like that should be the model of this podcast by now.

Nick: Yeah.

Alex: And on that note, we would like to thank you, listeners, for listening to us talk about character. You can get all the show notes for this episode at paperteam.co/46.

Nick: If you wanna leave us some reviews, please do.

Alex: Please, please.

Nick: We need them to survive. You can do that at paperteam.co/itunes and all those iTune reviews are gonna help us get new listeners, build our fun little community, I swear we’ll throw you all a party some time.

Alex: In fact, you should leave a review right now. We’re gonna wait for one second.

Nick: Alright. That was a great review. Thanks, guy.

Alex: And would you look at that? We got four brand new reviews, that just happened to…

Nick: Oh, wow. Thanks everyone.

[laughter]

Nick: Let’s take a read. They’re definitely not from a while ago. The first one is entitled, “Fantastic podcast for any aspiring TV writer.” And this is by Tyler1617 and he says, “I’m an office PA working in TV who also wants to write half hour comedies and I’ve never felt so directly addressed, career aspirations wise, than with this podcast. A lot of times at work I’m doing menial PA work and then I’m sent on a run and have a chance to listen to the podcast like this one, where I remember exactly what I’m shooting for and why I put the extra work in during my few off hours. Anyway, highly recommend the show.” That’s really nice.

Alex: Thank you, Tyler. We also got this one from Lauren Consenti, who says, “Hooray for Paper Team! Delightful, practical, helpful. Big ups to Alex and Nick. Thanks for doing this, guys.” Thank you, Lauren.

Nick: I believe that was Lauren that I met at the Austin Film Festival, right?

Alex: Maybe. We follow each other on Twitter. She’s actually moving to LA pretty soon.

Nick: Oh, well there you go.

Alex: So potentially it could be the same…

Nick: Absolutely. Well, good to hear from you again. The next one is called, “Just found Monday… ” Well, I’m sorry. The title of it is “Just found Monday at 5:00 AM, called in sick to work to listen through.” Which is hilarious, I love that. And the review is by Devin McCain, and he or she says, “This is an incredibly helpful podcast on writing for TV, a must-listen.”

Alex: We’re really glad you missed work, just for us.

[laughter]

Nick: We feel honored.

Alex: And finally, let’s read this one by Le Fierce. I don’t know if it’s Le fierce, he’s French like me but I love the name, Le Fierce.

Nick: Sounds like a joke that I would make about how to say something in French.

Alex: Yes. And the review’s entitled, “Fantastic, even if you’re not a TV writer.” And Le Fierce says, “I was tuned into this podcast attending the TV Writers versus Fandom panel they hosted at WonderCon. They were so prepared, asked great questions, and delved deeper into the tougher issues. I’m not a TV writer but listening to other episodes of this podcast, I’ve gained new insight into how the entertainment industry works and the ups and downs for TV writers. I find it fascinating and it’s enriched my understanding of what goes into the shows I’m enjoying. As a fan of shows and now a fan of this podcast, thanks, Alex and Nick.”

Nick: That was really nice.

Alex: Thank you, Le Fierce.

Alex: Once again we’d like to thank our sponsor, The Tracking Board’s Launch Pad writing competitions, Paper Team listeners can save $15 off their next purchase, just use the code PAPERTEAM, all one word, all caps at the checkout to receive your discount. You can learn more about all of The Launch Pad’s current and upcoming writing competitions by visiting tvlaunchpad.com. And as always, I’m on twitter @TVCalling.

Nick: I’m @_njwatson.

Alex: If you have any thoughts, feedback, opinions about this episode and other ones, please send them to [email protected] Nick, what are we doing next week?

Nick: Next week we’re gonna have a very special guest. His name is Hilliard Guess, he’s the host of the Screenwriter’s Rant Room podcast. He’s also a Vice-Chair of both the WGA Committee of Black Writers and the LGBT Committee. And he’s gonna talk about breaking in outside the system of traditional network staffing and studio feature assignments and all that stuff.

Alex: Outside the system. We’re going rogue! See you next week.

PT46 shownotes and audio episode available here.

We launched Paper Team a little bit over ten months ago, and after 46 episodes, we’ve once again hit a new milestone:

Over 30,000 downloads!

Let’s repeat that in all caps.

THIRTY THOUSAND DOWNLOADS!

As always: THANK YOU listeners and fellow TV Calling aficionados for the love.

We’re in the process of recording a very special episode to celebrate our one-year/50th episode anniversary.
In the meantime, we’re still releasing new episodes every Monday. Tune in for that!

If you’re a fan of Paper Team, please consider leaving us a review on iTunes right now to celebrate!
http://paperteam.co/itunes

For any questions/topics you’d like us to cover, don’t hesitate to e-mail us at [email protected]

And, of course, you can subscribe to Paper Team on all major podcast platforms…

Update: PT46 transcript available here

Alex and Nick discuss one of the most important parts of television writing: creating compelling characters.

Why are characters so vital to television shows? What are some key elements to watch out for when writing characters in a TV script? Why are character introductions so important in screenwriting? How can you create interesting people that fit your TV show?

The Paper Team explores their existence…

SHOWNOTES

Content

A special announcement (00:46)
1 – Television is a character’s medium (01:41)
2 – Describing characters: introductions, archetypes, and traits (02:42)
3 – Character voices, filler characters, and empathy (17:38)
4 – Characters in the story: goals and arcs (23:43)
Takeaways and Resources (28:25)

Links

House, M.D.
Hugh Laurie
“The Hero’s Journey” – Joseph Campbell
“The Writer’s Journey” – Christopher Vogler
Michael Clayton (Film)
Sam Seaborn
“Pilot” (1×01 – The West Wing)
“Pilot” (1×01-02 – Lost)
“Pilot” (1×01 – Community)
Legion (TV Series)
Anton Chigurh
“Assisting TV Comedy Writers ft. Gary Sundt” (PT43)
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Resources

“The Art Of Dramatic Writing” – Lajos Egri
“The Emotion Thesaurus” – Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi

This episode brought to you by Tracking Board’s Launch Pad Writing Competitions

Use code PAPERTEAM to get $15 OFF when you enter a Launch Pad Competition

Special thanks to Alex Switzky for helping us edit this episode.

If you enjoyed this episode (and others), please consider leaving us an iTunes review at paperteam.co/itunes! :)

You can find Paper Team on Twitter:
Alex@TVCalling
Nick@_njwatson
If you have any questions, comments or feedback, you can e-mail us: [email protected]

Hi there!

Alex Freedman

I'm Alex Freedman, the writer behind TV Calling.


I started this site in 2008 to chronicle my own journey in television writing.

687 posts and 9 years later, TV Calling has also become a comprehensive resource dedicated to the full TV writing industry — from spec to success.


Everything here is written by yours truly (unless otherwise credited), so feel free to blame me for any missed deadlines.


I hope you'll answer your television calling, and join me in this creative journey.


Write on.


P.S.: New around? You should start here.

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