When it comes to sitcom writing, there are people who believe that the more defined the cast of characters, the easier the writing. I disagree. My feeling is that the stronger, more established the characters are, the harder the writing.
There are shows made up of brilliant, well-defined characters. Everybody Loves Raymond, Frasier, The Dick Van Dyke Show, to name a few. Then there are shows where the different castmates tend to blend together. The quality of these shows is usually not as good. The writing isn’t as strong, the characters are a bit routine, and the overall show is just so-so.
The one thing these lackluster shows have going for them, though, is that they are easier to write. I’ll explain my point. If you are writing a show like Raymond, it’s not enough to just generate a funny line. You have to generate a funny line that fits the character you are writing for at the moment. The line has to be in the right voice. A line that works for Robert, wouldn’t work for Marie, or Frank. If you have a funny response that works brilliantly for Ray, you can’t just assign it to Debra. It needs to be reworked to fit her tone and personality. Your task is not only to write a great line, but to make it fit the character delivering it.
That’s not the case in a show that doesn’t rely on strong characters. You can take a funny line and give it to almost any other person on the show. It doesn’t matter who says it because the audience doesn’t really know each character. So, if one character needs a response you can take a line from another character without making too many changes.
So how do you learn to write for characters. As with most writing, it takes practice. For this exercise let’s use a show that had four very distinct characters: Golden Girls. Blanche, Rose, Dorothy, and Sophia are the cast of characters and characters they were. Each one was different and unique. A line delivered by Sophia wouldn’t work for Rose.
Listed below are a few simple questions. Ones you may hear in your everyday life. Your assignment is to choose one question and provide a response from each one of the four characters – Blanche, Rose, Dorothy, and Sophia.
How was your day?
Did it rain last night?
Can I pick you up anything at the store?
What’s for dinner?
Do these jeans make my butt look big?
Do it again, using a different question. Come up with some of your own. Then go back and do it using characters from a different show.
Have fun with this exercise.