by Marla White
When you’re coming up with the idea for pilot, whether as a writing sample of something to pitch, what’s the first thing you should focus on? A fresh, unique world? A strong plot with unexpected twists? Those are all very nice, but they don’t mean anything if you don’t have a great main character.
So what makes a character great? First and foremost, it has to be clear just who the show is about. Sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised what seems clear to the writer is completely a mystery to the reader. Unless your main character’s name is also the title, -- MacGyver, Kevin Can Wait, Sherlock, Everybody Loves Raymond, Grey’s Anatomy, etc – don’t assume the reader is going to know. Make it undeniably clear from the start. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be the first character you see – in “House” you don’t even meet House until page 5, but from the dialog you quickly understand he’s an obnoxious dude for a doctor as well as brilliant and clearly troubled. Even without the title, it’s clear by page 10 who the show is really about.
Second, is the character’s dilemma clear? The key ingredient to any great series is establishing early on what the character wants, what’s standing in their way, and how will overcoming the obstacle be sustainable. Even if you’re writing an ensemble, there should be one character we can connect to right away, preferably in the first 10 – 12 pages. We’ll stick around to get to know the rest of the ensemble if we can get to know what the main character is struggling with.
In “Grey’s Anatomy” for instance, it opens with the main character, Meredith Grey, saying, “The game. They say a person has what it takes to play, or they don’t. My mother was one of the greats. Me on the other hand – I’m screwed.” In the opening lines of dialog we know Meredith is struggling with confidence issues and with measuring up to her legendary mother. We also know by the action of the scene – a naked Meredith scrambling to get the naked man waking up in her house out of there so she can make it to work on time – that Meredith is a hot mess. By page 12 we hear another reference to “the game,” see Meredith struggle and finally hear from her colleagues just how legendary her mother is. We empathize with her because everyone understands mother issues and we all wish we had Dr. McDreamy naked on our living room floor. Is your main character easy to pick out? Is their obstacle clear early on?
One quick way to tell is if the logline for your script addresses the main character and their issues. For instance, the logline of “Kevin Can Wait” is, “A newly retired police officer looks forward to spending more quality time with his wife and three kids only to discover he faces much tougher challenges at home than he ever did on the streets.” Even though we know Kevin James is the main character just from the title, the logline makes it crystal clear what dilemma is going to drive the series.
Most of all, your main characters must be multi-faceted. An old boss of mine, Ronnie Clemmer, gave the best example of that I’ve ever heard when he compared characters to a quilt; they have to have a combination of dark and light to be interesting. A hero who is always a good guy is boring, but so is a villain who is super arch. The best characters combine some of each.
In “Nip/Tuck”, Dr. Christian Troy was an asshole most of the time, but once in a while he’d do something spectacularly human, leaving you coming back for more. Raylan Givens in “Justified,” was usually a law-abiding man, but often times what he considered to be within the limits of the law would surprise you. Tommy Gavin from “Rescue Me” was a horrible person, but he also stepped into burning buildings to save lives AND is haunted by the tragedy of 9/11 so we’ll forgive an awful lot as viewers. Most recently, I found myself yelling at the TV – and then tweeting about it – when the main character from Masterpiece Theater’s “Poldark” did something terrible, but it was completely understandable considering the characters past. Just so so wrong… and I loved staying tuned to see how he’d make it right again.
What main characters continue to surprise and inspire you? What do they do that keeps you coming back for more?