11 Nov 2016
dave's picture

Last time I suggested that comedy writers aren’t necessarily putting in enough work when it comes to creating new characters. All too often you see characters in sitcom responding to situations in random fashion.
Novelists and screenwriters spend an inordinate amount of time building character profiles. I don’t believe you and I need to think a great deal about backstory or what our comic inventions eat for breakfast, but there are several traits that comedy characters possess.
I’m not certain I know what all of them are, this blog is a work in progress, and I’ll be passing it round my comedy chums to see if they have anything to add, or indeed, take away, as some of these characteristics may overlap.
Ever fond of the naff acronym, I’ve bundled these numerous traits into the just about readable but utterly meaningless OFF UP D’BUS, LOSA. I’m sure there are more letters to add, and that these aren’t necessarily correct, but here goes:
Before anything else, your new character must be that – new, Original. It’s okay for your character to be recognisable, it helps the audience because they don’t need so many signposts to guide them to the jokes, but they need something else. Mrs Brown may be identical to Mrs Boswell in ‘Bread’, but the canny meshing of old school stereotypes (she’s a man in drag) and post-modern tropes (let’s break the fourth wall and have Mrs Brown acknowledge, Garry Shandling like, that the audience is also in the room), somehow equals hit TV show.
And, in what is a seemingly contradictory phrase, your character must also be Familiar. In the 80s and 90s, several extremely different characters emerged who were nevertheless pretty much the same guy. This was the character defined by what many people of my age say either with dewy-eyed nostalgia or hate-flecked spittle - Thatcher’s Britain. He was emboldened by the view that if you want to get on in the world it’s okay to cut corners, cheat the taxman, trample over the person in front of you to get what you want.
The most obvious embodiments of this character were Del Boy from Only Fools And Horses, and Arthur Daley in Minder. But there were others. He may have been living in previous centuries, but the Blackadder of series 2-4 was the Del Boy of his day, a chancer who saw a gap in the market and understood straight away how he could fill it. Father Ted may have trained at some stage in his life to devote himself to the care of others, but on Craggy Island there was only one person he was looking out for and that was Father Ted.
They must be Flawed. This is possibly the most complicated part of characterisation. It’s easy enough to say this is a person who gets angry very quickly and has been given a job in customer services. But you need to be able to find a way to sustain that premise, otherwise the character just gets sacked, end of story. I’m thinking now of a person I once spotted getting on the bus, he was a tightly clenched ball of simmering anger, and then as I looked closer I noticed he was carrying a book about Buddhism. Maybe he realised he had anger issues and was finding a way to deal with them. But in comedic terms I would write that character as someone who sees no contradiction between being a clenched-up ball of anger and thinking he’s also a Buddhist.
They should be Unsatisfied. This is going to be the source of your stories. Sometimes you’ll have a character that things happen to, but it’s always a stronger call to make your characters drive the story. Which leads to the next part of the acronym. I wouldn’t so much call this a characteristic, but it’s very important for your lead characters to be Proactive. I read a lot of scripts from writers of all levels, and find whole scenes go by in which our hero passes the time of day and nothing happens. They may be engaged in amusing banter, but it’s largely inconsequential.
The next letter arrives courtesy of our finest comedy script editor Andrew Ellard. Andrew writes wisely about Difference, which he explains is what most comedy is about. Recognising how your characters react to the same piece of information is a great way to help define who they are, while also ensuring that every character in your script is there for a reason. If you’re consistently finding it hard to differentiate one character from another, you may need to ditch that character completely. Better to do that at this stage than when you’re struggling to get through your first draft.
Your character has to be Believable. To make what may seem like a fine distinction, ‘believable’ is not the same as ‘real’. Real people, in general, are dull. Even if we live exciting lives, it’s quite rare for us to become embroiled in some ridiculous situation, largely of our own making, and that we make worse by our further actions, and from which we learn nothing. I doubt if anyone has ever seen someone get out of their broken-down car and smack it across the bonnet with a broken tree branch – but we’ve all experienced that feeling of rage and frustration, and understood the urge that drives Basil Fawlty to his act of arboreal violence.
Another common trait among sitcom characters is that they never learn from their mistakes. They are Unteachable. Will Basil, having got into such terrible trouble by lying and lying and being caught out as a bald-faced liar, start telling the truth? Or next time will he just try and be a little more devious? You know the answer and admit it, you’re the same. You never learn do you? Still working on that comedy screenplay aren’t you?
Your character has to be Sympathetic. This, by the way, does not mean likeable. Reggie Perrin’s boss CJ is an insufferable pompous bore with a mean streak, but he’s the boss, and we all understand that he didn’t get to where he is today by being likeable. (Also I had a light bulb moment in which I realised that ‘The Office’ is ‘Reggie Perrin’, with Tim as Reggie and Brent as CJ).
Finally we come to the word so often associated with British sitcom characters – loser, although as written here it’s LOSA, which stands for Lack Of Self-Awareness.Returning to ’The Office’, there is the clear moment at the end of the Christmas special where for the first time ever, we see David Brent understand how utterly despised he is. Within a few minutes the entire sitcom is finished, for ever, the end, at least until the comeback tour a decade later. Watch the footage of George Osborne being booed at the 2012 Olympics, that’s the first time he understands that people thoroughly dislike him, and his days as self-styled comedy baddy are finished.
I’m sure the above is not an exhaustive list, and some of the traits contradict each other.  Characters, like me and you in real life, can be contradictory, but the more funny things we can say about them, the more we can help build them into people you want in your sitcom.

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