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Screen & Stage
Clear Characterization Is Your Ticket - Part I
By Larry Brody
April, 2006, 23:58

"As soon as the viewers identify with the leads in a series, they're hooked."
he key to a successful television series is presenting characters the audience will repeatedly return to see. They have to be interesting and realistic. Many writers - and most development executives - think this means the characters have to be likeable, but television history belies this assumption. Andy Sippowitz may be everyone's favourite fascist cop, but is he likeable? And what about Archie Bunker?

The best way to devise series leads that penetrate the skin of the audience isn't necessarily to make them likeable, but rather to ensure they're sympathetic. Your heroes must have recognizable attitudes. The audience may not agree with the leads' beliefs, but viewers can understand them, especially if they are caught up in situations that engender feelings of powerlessness - an experience we all have at one time or another.

As soon as the viewers identify with the leads in a series, they're hooked. Then the audience will tune in weekly to see how people they either love or love to hate are coping with the same kind of events that cause great anxiety and stress in their own lives - whether the characters are doctors, lawyers, cops, or starship commanders.

No matter what genre you're working in, give your characters the same troubles the rest of us have. Then sit back and watch the sweat rise on not only your leads but also your audience.

Once you have established personas with which we can sympathize, your next job is to give these new people some [ital] tsuris [/ital] which is Yiddish for trouble with a capital T. As Aristotle pointed out, effective writing comes from building up to a climax. Once you've established your characters' basic situations - the needs that must be fulfilled - create tension by starting out small, with only one unmanageable stress. And then, even as they start to dig out of their crisis, ratchet up the pressure.

That's right; your job is to turn the screws, to pile more and more crap on your characters' heads - especially those of the hero or heroes. It's not bad enough that the daughter of the lead has been kidnapped; his wife has to leave him as well. And then his dog gets run over, and his boss lets him know that if he doesn't make it to the next PTA meeting and bring the cookies, he's fired. Now we're talking stress - real interest.

Given the right set of troubles, the audience will feel for even the most deplorable lead. Remember The Player? Tim Robbins' character kills a writer who doesn't deserve it in any way. But Tim's life gets so tough afterward that even we writers rooted for him all the way.

As writers we're always playing God. Give your characters something to suffer over and the audience will embrace them.

Stay tuned to see the second part of this article next month.

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Larry Brody - As a producer, Larry Brody has been responsible for thousands of hours of network television programming. As a writer, he has authored over five hundred different television episodes and movies of the week, serving as head writer, creator and/or producer of The Huntress, Star Trek: Voyager, Diagnosis Murder, Walker Texas Ranger and Star Trek: The Next Generation, to name only a few. He is also the author of the best-selling how-to book Television Writing from the Inside Out and Creative Director of the non-profit Cloud Creek Institute For The Arts, where he supervises, internationally known as the top television writing site on the Web, and, the Web's fastest-growing registry of intellectual property.

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