Regular readers will know I like to be able to break a character down to the very basics. When you write your story, you have to be able to quickly bring to mind that character and how they act. A simple sense of who the character is really helps give you clarity.
But it can also help you avoid what is an all too common problem: all of your characters coming across the same in your story.
The big test of character is not how great your description is. It’s if the audience knows who these characters are in a single story. In a single scene. They should. Every time. Your characters should be that clear. And how do we do this? Through action. Through how they tackle a situation, react to the unexpected, respond to pressure. So you need to give them situations, the unexpected or pressure.
And you can test this. Give your scene to someone who doesn’t know the show and ask them to describe the characters. Do they get it right? If not, what can you do to fix that?
Here are some things you shouldn’t rely on to make your characters different: funny voices, catchphrases, colours, different tools or weapons, racial stereotypes. None of these things are a substitute for actual personality and the last one is right out.
Know who your characters are. Make them different. Then make them clear.
In children’s media, I like my characters to be simple and easy to grasp. It offers clarity in storytelling, it lets the kids know the characters quickly and it means things don’t get messy. But simple and clear doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a spark or depth beneath that clarity – that’s where genuine humanity comes into play. We all act differently under different circumstances, especially when under stress.
A very simple story example of this is in Indiana Jones. He’s brave and that’s a defining, clear trait. We know where we’re at with Indy’s bravery. But present him with some snakes and that changes. He acts differently. He’s not acting out of character because this is an established part of who he is – Indy is frightened of very little but he is scared of snakes.
This is a fantastic storytelling tool because it allows a writer to put Indiana Jones in a panic situation, something that would be very rare for him as a character.
Secondary traits and exceptions to the core traits are really important for this reason. One-note characters are nicely clear but can be deadly boring. On the other side of that, a character who isn’t pinned down and has no consistency will be a character we can never truly know or understand. But a clear, simple character with a set of exceptions allows an audience to quickly get on their side while also providing the storyteller with some tools to mix things up – to make the character uncomfortable and, at some points, even unpredictable.
In a way, this is really about knowing the limits of your character and how that works in their everyday life. They might be a generous character… until it comes to sharing a dessert. They might be a grumpy character… until presented with a puppy. They might be an energetic character… until they have bad night’s sleep. There is always an exception somewhere when it comes to people and how we act.
So use that. Use those exceptions. Do it clearly – know who your base character is and know why you’re going to change how they act and then make that clear to your audience. Don’t let them get muddled or feel like they are acting out of character. But use the exceptions to mix up your stories and add some twists and turns in there. Because acting differently under different circumstances is the human thing to do.
Story problems need solutions. If your story doesn’t have a strong line running through it, or it wanders, or it doesn’t lead to a satisfying conclusion then you are going to have to fix that. As part of the normal process, you’ll have to look at your story and be willing to make significant amendments – that’s normal. Some stories have more problems than others but you can be sure that there will be story problems to solve somewhere in your process.
But here’s the thing: story problems usually require more than story solutions. In fact, looking for story solutions may be the wrong thing altogether.
Really? How can that be? Stay with me here! What I have found over the years of writing and, more importantly, in evaluating stories and script editing (because it can be easier to see things in the work of others) is that story problems usually need character solutions.
For one thing, it is often problems with the characters that lead to the perception of a story problem in the first place. They might be acting out of character and so a section just doesn’t feel true. Or there might be better actions that a particular character would take. A moment that should have a punch might have none because we don’t get why it matters to our characters. Or a section might just be dying because the characters in it don’t spark off each other. But even if the problem isn’t directly a character problem, when you go into the plot and the story and start moving things around then, invariably, you’ll introduce one of these problems. Funnelling characters into places to serve the plot or fix the plot can lead to a disconnect between character and story.
You have to go back to the characters.
You have to ask character questions. How can you amend your characters to put them on a new path that will, in turn, strengthen your story? If these characters aren’t yet fully defined, you actually have an advantage – you can completely rewrite the characters, improving the overall dynamic between them. If they are already locked down as characters, then what you might need to do is to change who is with who in the scenes or introduce a new element very early on that can put your main characters on a slightly different path or give them different information – something that will amend the choices those characters will make when you get to the difficult areas in your story.
When you get that right, your characters are driving your story and that’s exactly the way it should be. Always go back to your characters because story problems usually need character solutions.
Character is everything. At least, that’s what people say.
But, having created over 40 characters for one show alone, I’ve realised that some of the characters people initially love turn out to be the hardest to find stories for. The attraction to a character can actually be just a surface trait, or a design quirk rather than being a really well-developed character who will lead to many good stories. Some characters get exhausted rather quickly, whereas others remain fun to write forever. And when they’re more fun to write, I’m pretty sure they’re usually more fun to watch.
Here are a few examples of Fluffy Gardens characters easy or tough to write for:
PAOLO THE CAT
Everyone took a shine to Paolo early on and children really respond to him when he crops up in other character’s episodes.
But, beyond his initial series 1 episode, Paolo was very difficult to write for. The thing is, because he is set up as being so clever, he’s a living deus ex machina to any story. Can’t solve a problem? Go to Paolo and ask him! He’s a ruiner of good stories. So in series 2, you’ll see Wee Reg the Puppy immediately jump to the idea of asking Paolo about rainbows – but Paolo isn’t in (he’s out buying milk) because, if Paolo is in, the story ends there and not in a very interesting way.
Of course, what I came to realise is that part of what made Paolo so endearing in the first place is how insecure he is about his own talents. I made use of that in a series 2 episode that became one of my favourites.
Still, Paolo wasn’t easy to write for.
THE SMALL GREEN THING
Another very popular character with children. But let’s be honest here, even the word ‘character’ is stretching it a bit. He’s cute, he’s green and he squeaks.
Part of the challenge with this character is that I achieved what I wanted to say with the Small Green Thing in the very first Fluffy Gardens episode ever aired – Paolo the Cat. In that, I show that even though he is small his help can make a big difference. I feel that’s a strong message and I delivered it and then the poor ol’ Small Green Thing became tough to write even just as a guest character. Nevertheless, he remained popular among fans of the show and I think he’s an example of the importance of simplicity. In ways, it’s sometimes easiest for us to relate to the blank slate characters because we can project ourselves on to them.
MAVIS THE PONY
Mavis, on the other hand, I could write a thousand episodes about. She is one Fluffy Gardens character who could easily carry her own show. She is no (please excuse this) one trick pony. She is very careful (positive?) but that makes her nervous (negative?), prone to panic (negative?) and unwilling to take chances (parents could see that either way depending on just how many scrapes their children get into). So her main trait, being careful, instantly results in a whole bunch of conflicts without her even having to do a thing. And, as most of these Fluffy Gardens character traits lend themselves to moral tales, Mavis exists in a grey area because it’s easy to argue that being careful is a good thing and equally easy to argue that taking chances is a good thing.
To add to that, she has hay fever and Michael Maloney’s voice delivery makes her sound like a female Irish Richard Nixon, which I love.
So Mavis can be thrown into just about any story and be entertaining, often very funny but also come out of it having learned something about the merits of being careful or the exact opposite – about taking chances.
As a result, you’ll see there are more series 2 episodes about Mavis the Pony than any other character. She was just too much fun. I had to keep writing Mavis stories.
Early on when pitching Fluffy Gardens, many people asked me ‘could you just make the show about Paolo the Cat?’. If I had, the show would have wrapped up after about three episodes. What we perceive as character is often much simpler than we imagine, and other times much more complex. But of this I’m pretty certain – there is a lot more to making a connection with children than character. It is just one layer in a far larger creation.
My latest article with Ireland’s parenting site for fathers, dad.ie, is up here. It’s about princesses, pink and role models for our little girls.
I created and wrote the first series of Fluffy Gardens before I became a parent. I was asked recently if there is anything I would have done differently had I already been a parent, having more first-hand experience with children.
The truth is, yes, I would have done some things differently.
Even though I aimed for a completely safe, warm, good show built on positive values, and I totally understood that children learn from television, seeing that direct effect every day over a long period of time does make a difference. It changes things when you can’t give the children back!
I’m not saying it’s essential. But, for me, it made a difference.
And one thing having my girls really brought home is how much children can model their behaviour, mannerisms, speech patterns and more on what they see on television. Some of their understanding of what they can and can’t do in life comes from entertainment. Sure, it comes from many other places too but that’s where it gets difficult. That’s where people think, well, television didn’t affect me. But is it more just that the influences are so mixed that it’s hard to pick out exactly what effect TV actually had?
Every character in a show, mine or anyone else’s, can be a role model.
Now, I’m not saying every character should be a role model. That would likely make for some very dull television. But, still, it is important to understand that every character can be a role model, whether we like it or not. Some of Dora the Explorer’s research revealed that a sub-section of their male audience wanted to be Swiper the Fox when they grow up. You can be sure his creators didn’t intend that. But it happens.
Every character can be a role model.
And that’s something we have to accept and take on. We are responsible for what we create.
While I don’t think that should stifle our creativity, I think it’s always something worth keeping in mind. There’s some really good news here for show creators and writers – there are some voids in our modern role models. Some places where we could do with more positive role models for different sections of our community. Why is this good news? Because looking to fill those voids can lead to whole new fresh and interesting characters.
After all, if there’s no void there, someone else is already doing it.