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.
If you’re making content for children, one of the most basic requirements is that you know children. You have to know your audience. If you’re creating, writing, directing, animating child characters, you have to know what children are like at that age.
Kids and adults are not the same thing. Approach your audience like adults and you’ll get it wrong. Approach your characters like adults and, yep, you’ll get it wrong.
And be aware that children of different ages vary hugely. Sure, a 36 year old might be pretty much the same as a 39 year old. A 3 year old child is like an entirely different being to a 6 year old. They are not the same thing.
There are far too many things to cover in one post (and I shouldn’t – reading bullet points is not the same as knowing what kids are like) but you have to remember that young kids are SMALL. They are curious. They are explorers. They learn fast and soak up information. They often think in absolutes, not grey areas. They don’t do subtlety. They get REALLY excited about things. More excited than you ever get and often about things that you find utterly mundane. And they can go straight to REALLY upset in an instant. They can switch emotions with no transition. They are animated, expressive and, when young, usually have very few reservations or social barriers. They have challenges you never face. And they don’t let it hold them back. The smaller ones have to climb just to get up on a chair. You can be sure they’ll climb up on to the kitchen counter to get a glass. They have achievements every single day, often several a day. That means tying their laces or something else you take for granted. They will eat sweets until they are sick and then do it again the next day. They probably don’t care in the slightest about the pretty scenery out the window. They could well be picking their nose and eating it at this very moment. And they can do exactly what an adult just told them not to do and it doesn’t make them bad kids.
And most of all: they are all different.
But the one thing they aren’t is adult. You’ve got to know what kids are like. It’s so important.
A lot of creative choices are simply that: choices. That’s all. Got a teapot in a shot? Maybe you make it yellow. Or blue. Or kind of off white. Maybe an art director would prefer it purple to match some curtains somewhere. Maybe the director’s favourite colour is orange and tends to go for orange more. Six different people might pick six different colours for that teapot. And a day later some of those might pick a different colour.
When someone hands you that teapot design and it isn’t the colour you would have picked, you might want to jump in and get that changed… STOP!
Before you put something into the system, ask yourself this: will this change genuinely make it better? Or will it just make it different? Different is rarely enough reason to justify the change. There are enough things in any given story, episode or production that actually need examination or improvement for anyone to spend time just making something different.
Story, engagement and entertainment are what matters. Detail is important in fleshing out a world, the stage for the stories. But it needs to be recognised that so many choices in any creative endeavour are no more than that: choices. We won’t all make the same ones and that doesn’t make a different choice wrong.
So when working with a team or evaluating work, keep in mind that a choice is not wrong just because it is not the one you would have made. Don’t focus on the things you would do differently. Focus on where you can genuinely improve and enhance, always keeping in mind the bigger picture – the storytelling and engagement.
Writers will understand the need for this straight away. It’s that feeling when you save the final version of your file, put it in an email and click SEND. And then you spot the typo. EVERY. TIME.
It just needed one more check before sending. That typo probably isn’t the worst idea thing in the world but it will haunt you. And it may not be a typo – it could be something bigger. It’s not just for the writers either. A scene. A storyboard. A design. They could all do with one last check before you show them.
So buy that time.
Work it so you can take the time to do that final check before you send. To do this, aiming for your deadline isn’t enough. Given that something will likely slow you up somewhere, you should always be aiming earlier anyway but you’ll definitely need some extra time for that last check. So reset your deadline to accommodate that.
Remember: the deadline and the actual time you need to finish in order to meet that deadline are rarely the same thing.
Build it into estimates you give people. If you think something will take five hours, say it will take five and a half. Or six. If it will take a week, build in an extra half day or even a day. It’s check time and it will pay off. Yes it takes more time but it will mean your work is presented in a better form and you may well find you have more to fix than the equivalent of typos.
Always have that time for one last check. If you didn’t need it, great. But usually you will and you’ll be very glad you allowed for it.
I like my preschool funny and happy and silly and then maybe even more funny. Bright skies, big smiles, warm hugs. Kids are full of love and the world can be a wonderful place. Why would we have anything else?
But I remember years ago when my eldest was little, my motorbike was stolen. And she couldn’t understand why someone would do that. She had no frame of reference for that. The day it happened was the first day I talked to her about a specific TV character in a more serious way: Swiper the Fox. Yep, Swiper from Dora who steals things. At that moment, Dora the Explorer went from being a shouty show with Spanish words to a very useful parenting tool.
There have been some dark world events recently that can be difficult for kids who know about them and we’ve had one rather gruesome local event that had me struggling to talk to my kids about it, even now at the older ages they are. I have found myself wondering: what tools might have helped? What metaphors or characters or narratives might help guide a conversation? We have to be careful because a lot of events will completely pass young children by so no need to hit them with the hard stuff on television. But that doesn’t mean we ignore reality or shy away from prompting thought or discussion. Some of the best television for children challenges their audience. And when kids learn so fast, it seems like a good time to do it.
It’s not easy and you have to be careful but it’s something to consider. I guess it comes down to a question I find good to ask when making anything: how can I help? So maybe give that some thought when you’re creating.
As people who know me are familiar with, one of my mantras is: be good to the parents. If your show can be not just entertainment but actually useful at some point, you’re doing some real good and also generating goodwill that will come back to you. I guess hopefully taking all of us, children and adults alike, one step closer to that world of bright skies, big smiles and warm hugs.
Is your character lacking something? As long as the answer isn’t along the lines of ‘enough development’ then this is a GOOD thing! Characters who are too perfect make storytelling way harder than it needs to be. They have nowhere to go and nothing to learn.
Watching a character who has all the answers is like staring at someone following a strict set of clear instructions when it is much more fun to watch an artist create spontaneously. Why? Because it can go wrong. We have something to lose. There is room for surprises, the unexpected actions. A character needs that. A story needs it.
In young children’s media, we’re often pushed to make our characters nicer, smarter, better. We like them aspirational – kids should want to be like them. We like them to model good behaviour. I can assure you as a parent that there are good reasons for that. We (me included) often portray characters in young children’s media how we would like kids to be rather than how they are. Sometimes that’s okay to an extent but it can make a character deadly dull and make good stories very difficult to tell. Then there is also the issue of that question I like to ask: what does this say about a child’s life as it is right now?
I like aspirational characters. But children grow and, I feel, so should characters. And for that to happen, they must start with a need. With something lacking. Something that someone might perceive as a flaw (whether it is or not is up to your story) or something within them that actually works against them. I think we’ve all probably got some trait like that even if we’re slow to admit it.
So allow your character to lack something. To need something. Give them somewhere to go. And then, in your story, take them there.
When you’re making a series, you have to think long term. Are you making 26 episodes? 52? Double that? Where are all those stories coming from?
When the stories come in, there is one consideration often missed: is this going to affect other stories? Does it blow an idea without making real use of it?
Sometimes small details can have an effect on a later story and we usually encounter these after it has happened. A writer might have a great story idea about the main character not wanting to eat vegetables and then coming to love them. Until you realise that the last four episodes showed that character munching into vegetables. You might plan an episode about the first experience on a skateboard only to remember that there was a skateboard scene in a montage in a previous episode. A story might have your character bitterly disappointed that the boating trip they have been looking forward to all year has been cancelled but kids know that your character goes boating every second episode and it is no big deal to wait for the next trip.
Stories affect other stories. So when stories come in, or you’re the one writing them, you have to consider the series as a whole and you’re better looking for these things in advance. It is important to ask yourself: does this rule out anything in a future episode or use up a great idea that could be a whole story in itself?
Sometimes that will be hard to spot. No reason generally to avoid a character eating vegetables, for example. So you just deal with that new story suggestion when it comes in. But you can definitely look for a story point that might be blowing an entire future episode. If you see a beach story coming in that has a brief throwaway surfing moment, for example, it would be worth considering saving that idea for a whole story around surfing. Or you might suggest an amendment – if the surfing moment has everyone surfing really well, maybe it would be an idea to restrict it to just a couple of characters so you can do a story later about how one of the other characters has trouble learning to surf. If you show everyone surfing well in one shot, you’re establishing a default that is hard to go back on.
When making a whole series, you need stories. You’re going to need lots of them. So keep a lookout for the needs of stories yet to come and avoid breaking them or blowing them too early. Your future self will thank you.
Ah, notes. We all love notes, right? I know the first reaction to notes is usually negative (that’s normal) but it’s important once we get past that to see how they can help and how best to tackle them. Different people give different notes. Some are consistently great and helpful and others might not always seem useful initially. You have to get to know the notes you’re dealing with and the person you are getting them from and so each project often requires a different approach when it comes to notes.
But here’s something that is useful no matter what kind of notes you’re getting: look beyond the notes themselves. Look for the intention behind the notes.
Almost every note has a problem to solve or a question to answer. But sometimes the problem listed in the notes is not actually the real problem. It might be a symptom of something else that has been missed or has become unclear. It might even be about something outside of the work that you’ve made so far – a request that has come in from someone else that is now being applied in the form of a note passed on to you. Sometimes acting on a note immediately as described can actually cause more problems than it solves if you don’t know the intention behind it.
This will be especially relevant if specific suggestions are given. When people give notes, I love when they give suggestions on how to fix things. Firstly, it shows they really want to contribute positively and, secondly, it gives a really great starting point for the fix. But it is just a starting point. The solution offered may not be the fix. And your reaction to it might be “that won’t work” and you might even be right. But look for the intention behind it. What is it trying to solve?
Look beyond the note itself and try to find the intention behind it and you’ll then understand what you need to achieve and, more often than not, the real solution will become clear.
And if you’re reading this and you’re someone who gives notes, here’s a tip: you can help people get to the best fix by making clear why something is a problem or why you’re asking for something. No matter what side of the notes you’re on, knowing the intention always helps.
One of the places you can fall down in your pitch is in the information dump. Too much information, to the point where it feels overwhelming or boring or just plain too long. More often than not, the more information you give the less clarity you’re offering. Same with show pitch bibles, which I’ve covered here before.
Short, simple, clear and to the point.
However, that does not mean that you don’t have to know all that other stuff. When you’re sitting in front of someone telling them about your concept, you need to know everything that you can. You need to be armed with the information. You need to be able to answer all the questions (again, in a short, clear way) and provide the extra information that you don’t cover in your distilled quick pitch, and you need to be able to do it in an enthusiastic way. You must know your concept inside and out.
And here’s the thing – if you do know your show and it’s a concept that is clear and developed and refined, even if you barely have to answer a single question on it, that knowledge will come through in your confidence and the language you use. One of the best ‘nailed it’ moments was after a presentation I gave when a major broadcaster told me that it was clear that we really know our show and our characters. That counts for a lot with anyone who will take an interest in your show because it’s like a safety net. They know you have a clear vision and you’ve really done the work.
So do the work. Know your show. Know every part of it. Don’t dump it out on to the table in your pitch. Keep it there so you have more to talk about when asked. But know it.
Even a plotter like me can find that the story we begin is not the story we finish. Stories wander. Characters take other directions. Some minor characters take over. The theme drifts as we find we don’t deliver on what we set up at all and yet we’re paying off some whole other idea.
None of this is a bad thing. This is all part of the story process and, actually, I find it is usually a very good thing. It means the story is taking on a life of its own. Whether it’s you as a writer or you have a writer working on it, there are new inspirations and ideas at work. All this will help the story fresh and exciting.
But at a certain point, the story has to be unified. You can’t let it stay one story at the beginning and another at the end. This is for many reasons but possibly the most important of all is that, for an ending to satisfy, the entire story needs to have been going there from the beginning, whether the audience realises it consciously or not.
So you have to go back and see your story parts for what they are. You have to look at your themes, how your characters are working. And then you have some serious decisions to make – is the story you’re telling at the end better than the one you started with? If so, you go back and replot that beginning, always keeping in mind where it now has to go. If not, you need to keep the opening stuff that you love and keep your story on track as you get to a new ending that really delivers. Or you may end up with somewhere in between (although mixing two good ideas does not always lead to a great idea). Whatever you choose, you have some work to do.
This is easy in a short children’s TV episode. One thing I love about kids’ TV work is that it really isn’t a big deal to throw out huge chunks of your story. The damage done and amount you need to fix is never so much that you can’t be brave about changing story direction. A feature film, on the other hand? That’s hard. And I can’t imagine what it must be like to have to fix a novel in this scenario. When you’re dealing with a long story, my advice is to make a new bullet point outline of your story. Lots of screenwriters do this on cards and that works well. Whatever breakdown you began with, dump that and make one based on what you now actually have.
When you have identified the parts you need to fix, get rid of them. Remove them from your outline completely. Why? Because if you leave them and try instead to just amend them, you’ll do this half-assed because every fibre of your being will want to keep the older stuff. Get rid of them completely. Now you know where your gaps are.
With your new aims very clearly marked out – I would always have them in front of me (theme, character arcs and so on) – retell your story. Work through it, filling in the gaps in your outline bit by bit. If all goes well, this should actually be easier than the first time you told your story because you’ll have those clear aims.
When you have a new start to finish story, go back to your draft and delete all the same parts you deleted in your outline. Completely. Gone. Replace those big chunks with the notes from your new story outline. And now just write! Fill in the gaps.
When you hit your final draft, the story you begin must be the story you finish.