Writing Characters for Television Series

Keeping Characters Alive

Unlike single stories that are told from scratch, television stories have “carry-over.” That which is established becomes embedded in the mythic lore of the series, creating an inertia that strangles many fine concepts before their time. This inertia can be a very good thing if it forms a foundation that acts as a stage for the characters rather than burying the characters under the foundation.

To keep a limber concept from succumbing to arthritis in this concrete jungle, creating characters who can portray the full Element level of the structural storyform and making choices that shift the dynamics from episode to episode are required to keep things lively.

Archetypal Characters

Many episodic series rely on Archetypal Characters who can be counted on to respond in the same way from episode to episode. This caters to the strengths of television series with a loyal audience: the ability to create friends and family on which one can rely.

The first few episodes of a series usually bring in the “Villain of the Week” (essentially a new Archetypal Antagonist each time) while the Archetypal roles are becoming established for the regular cast and the mythic lore is being outlined. This formula wears thin rather quickly as the characters fall into predictable relationships with each other. They assume standard roles from which they never vary until the series loses its ratings and is canceled.

Swapping Roles

A solution to this growing inflexibility is to change the formula after a few “establishing” episodes. If one keeps the Objective Characters the same for stability but swaps the Subjective Character roles, the dynamics of the character inter-relationships change even while the structure remains the same. This means the Protagonist is still the Protagonist, Reason is still Reason and so on, but Reason may be the Main Character of the week and Protagonist the Obstacle Character. By shifting Subjective Character roles, several season’s worth of character variations can be created without any repeats and the loyal audience’s attention is retained.

To further break up the routine, occasional stories can focus on one of the Objective Characters as Protagonist and Main Character in his own story, without the other cast members. For this episode only, a whole new ensemble is assembled as if it were a story independent of the series. Obviously, too much of this weakens the mythic lore, so this technique should be used sparingly.

Characters of the Week

On the other hand, many successful series have been built around a single character who travels into new situations from week to week, meeting a whole new cast of characters each time. This forms the equivalent of an anthology series, except the Main Character recurs from week to week.

A means of generating character variety is to occasionally assign this recurring character to roles other than that of Protagonist. Instead of telling every episode as revolving around the recurring character, have that character be Guardian or Antagonist or Skeptic to some other Protagonist. This technique has allowed many “on the road” series to remain fresh for years.

From the Dramatica Theory Book