Larry Brody on Characterization

Admit it. You used to love these guys, right?
Admit it. You used to love these guys, right?

The TV Writer on TV Writing
by Larry Brody

When writing for television, the key to creating a successful series is populating it with characters the audience wants to come back and see again and again. This means that the characters – especially the leads – have to be, at the least, interesting, as well as realistic. I say “at the least” because over the years I’ve found that words like “quirky” and “weird” have described some of TV’s most popular heroes.

In the ’60s, for example, we had Ironside, the wheelchair-bound detective, running a team that could help him solve any crime and capture any crook. In the ’70s there was Wonder Woman, a woman who dominated every scene of the show, and pretty much every man in it as well. The ’80s gave us the A Team and the guys on MIAMI VICE. The ’90s brought the buddies of FRIENDS and SEINFELD to the fore. And the 2000s – well, I don’t know where to begin. Every successful show for the last decade and a half has featured characters far different from your standard neighbors next door.

Notice that I haven’t said that your leads need to be likeable. Once upon a time, network executives demanded likability, but characters like ALL IN THE FAMILY’S Archie Bunker (way back in the ’70s) and NYPD BLUE’s Andy Sippowitz (a ’90s icon) cracked the mold. And more recently the casts of THE SOPRANOS, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, GAME OF THRONES, BREAKING BAD,and all the other cable network anti-heroes have totally shattered that misconception.

I think that the best way to devise series leads who get under the skin of the audience is to make sure they have recognizable – and understandable – attitudes. The audience may not agree with the their beliefs, but viewers understand them, especially if they are caught up in situations that give them the feeling of powerlessness that we all have at one time or another in life. (It may even be that “powerlessness” is the single most identifiable aspect of humanity, but that’s a topic for philosophers or psychotherapists—hmm, and, of course, for writers.)

As soon as the audience identifies with the leads in a series, it’s hooked. The viewers then have to come back every week 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 the the lives of the viewers—whether the characters be doctors, lawyers, cops, starship commanders, superheroes, or serial killers.

So no matter what genre you’re working in, remember to give your characters the same troubles the rest of us have. Then sit back and watch the not only your leads but also your audience sweat.



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Author: LB

A legendary figure in the television writing and production world with a career going back to the late ’60s, Larry Brody has written and produced hundreds of hours of American and worldwide television and is a consultant to production companies and networks in the U.S. and abroad . Shows written or produced by Brody have won several awards including - yes, it's true - Emmys, Writers Guild Awards, and the Humanitas Award.