Recently, a wise young screenwriter reminded me of a wise old adage: When pitching a new project, there are two questions every writer should be prepared to answer: “Why do this story?” And, “Why do this story now?”
The first question’s a no-brainer. There are tons of projects being pitched every day, so what makes your story special? What makes your story more entertaining and commercial than the last ten projects pitched to that buyer? A fair question; one always has to consider the competition.
But writers sometimes fail to consider the second question—what makes this story timely? Producers and executives love timely stories because viewers are more likely to sample material that incorporates today’s news, the trends and issues they’re currently facing in their own lives. And, timeliness is a great marketing hook for a show. And, it’s a great selling point when producers and execs are pitching a project to their buyers and bosses up the ladder.
Does a project have to be timely in order to succeed? No. Consider the ever-popular The Princess Bride (1987), holiday classics like It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), and FX series What We Do in the Shadows (2019-). These and many other shows are special partly because they are more timeless than timely. Sure, one can always claim that a show was based on timely themes when that was never the writer’s intent, but must we? Sometimes, it’s okay if “an apple is just an apple” (Yoko Ono). Same with cigars, and stories (Stephen King).
But, say you do want to explore ways to make a story more timely. Okay, what are people talking about today? What should they be talking about? What will they talk about tomorrow? Maybe that should influence your plot. Maybe that should be the plot. Or a subplot.
And what about your characters, the folks that drive the story? Shouldn’t their personalities be made timely? Sure. How do you do that?
Well, if the story has them fighting for or against a contemporary issue, their actions will seem timely. But that’s still plot, right?
And, we’re focusing on comedy writing here, so how does that fit in? Great questions…
OUR FRIEND, THE FLAW
Creating a new character can start in all sorts of ways. Maybe one just pops into your head, almost fully formed, raring to go—lucky you! Maybe just a spark of a personality comes to mind, some intriguing trait or backstory event, and you work from there. Or, maybe you’ve got a plot in mind and its needs dictate much of the character’s personality.
Then come the questions. What does that character want? What do they fear? Are they nice or mean, rich or poor? Honest, sneaky, clever or do they just think they’re clever? Do they own 12 cats? Have medals in a drawer? Did the cats win those medals? So many questions!
And then there’s the big question, often the most important, the one that launches character arcs (for those characters that have one) and greatly influences a plot’s development—does the character have a psychological flaw?
Meaning, when we first meet the character, are they somehow wrong in their view of life? Perhaps due to some damaging or life-changing experience in their past? Are their core values warped, their decisions and actions unhealthy or hurtful to others? Here’s an example: In the opening of the first Shrek film (2001), we learn that the title character has been ostracized for his looks, so he has embraced being a surly loner. That’s a poor choice, it’s his flaw. But he eventually grows out of it (his character arc) thanks to lessons learned during the adventure he experiences in that story.
In the opening of Bridesmaids (2011), Annie deems herself a loser because her dream career (running her Cake Baby bakery) was ruined, and she has lost all interest in trying to achieve career success. Her new, unhealthy goal is to land a guy, preferably a well-to-do guy like narcissist Ted, who will take over control of her life. Her self-pity leads to selfish decisions that produce disastrous results for her best friend, Lillian. Ultimately, Annie sinks so low that she finally realizes she needs to selflessly focus on her friend’s needs and get back on her own two feet—which leads to the happy ending she thought she’d never see.
These character flaws are so important! And that’s especially true in comedy. Because funny stories are often launched and driven by characters making bad decisions—decisions directly resulting from their flawed thinking. Surly Shrek wants the fairy tale refugees thrown out of his swamp so he can reclaim his lonely life; he seeks help from evil Lord Farquaad, but instead ends up being forced to go on a dangerous quest. Loser Annie is more worried about keeping her own costs down than giving her BFF a great marriage send-off; Annie ends up causing such unhappiness that she loses her friend, lover, job, and apartment.
Both Shrek’s and Annie’s psychological flaws warp their core values, causing them to pursue inappropriate goals which then backfire in funny ways. And, that humor is natural and true to the character, the best kind of comedy!
Which brings us to the point—not a huge idea, just a bit of fine-tuning: That psychological flaw that’s already doing so much excellent work can also be tweaked to make a character and your story more timely. How?
A LITTLE FINE-TUNING
When creating a character that is supposed to experience psychological growth, a writer will focus on things like a damaged psyche, warped value system, poor social skills, and personality-shaping (or -crushing) backstory events. Big stuff, all very important.
To make that character seem more timely, one might pause to also consider…the evening news. And web stories, newspapers, magazines, and topical books. And social-media trends, and social-issue pundits like Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, and John Oliver. And maybe Oprah? But probably not the pope. But definitely Michelle Obama.
To make a character more timely, when deciding how their psychological growth will develop, why not have their personality flaw incorporate a specific issue that is in the news right now? Here are some examples.
COMEDY FROM PRETENSE
Pretense? Think big ego. When a character’s psychological flaw is an inflated view of their intelligence, abilities, and/or looks, it’s easy to pull humor from that. Consider all of the main characters in the series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005-), all except Frank. Frank actually has accomplished much in life and has a pretty accurate sense of his obnoxious ogre self. But the others—Dennis, Dee, Mac, and Charlie—each have a distinct and grossly inflated opinion of how smart and attractive they are. These primary flaws have spawned story predicaments and jokes in numerous episodes, as Dennis imagines he’s out-debating experts (who are baffled by his logic), Dee deems herself irresistible to all men, Mac boasts that his (nonexistent) martial-arts skills will keep the gang safe, and Charlie presumes to act as a lawyer in court battles, armed only with too-short ties and an empty briefcase.
How might one tweak such characters to make them and their stories a bit more timely? What if, as one example, egotistical Dee also deemed herself an expert on the subject of diversity and inclusion—a very important contemporary issue that she is ill-equipped to understand. What if part of her character’s pretense was that she regularly lectured others on the dos and don’ts of social equity, misquoting this and misinterpreting that, and always assuming that her warped observations were greatly appreciated by the oppressed people she was attempting to defend—or educate.
And, to compound the crazy, what if Dennis, Mac, Charlie, and Frank bought into her lectures and believed that she actually was the group’s expert on these issues? And made very bad decisions based on her horribly misguided suggestions?
Too much? Probably. Social equity seems too important and sensitive a subject to regularly associate it with the over-the-top antics on Always Sunny. So, here’s a more subtle example.
The producers of the Canadian series Kim’s Convenience (2016-2021) actually did create a toned-down version of a “woke crusader” when designing the character of “Mr. Kim,” the Korean-Canadian father that runs his family’s store. In numerous episodes, including the pilot, this imperious grump presumes to understand how one of his diverse customers thinks. Sometimes he’s spot on, other times he misinterprets, many times he offends—and every time, his conclusions enrich story and spawn humor.
The concept of having a story draw humor from a would-be woke crusader isn’t new. Remember the infamous “Diversity Day” episode of The Office (2005), in which Michael Scott presumes to lecture a black diversity expert on how diversity and inclusion should be taught? But, that’s one story, a single episode. Mr. Kim is an example of the trait being made an ongoing aspect of a character’s personality; a character flaw that regularly spawns humor based on a timely topic. (Imagine Mr. Kim without this trait; he’d still be appealing and fun, but his grumpy, out-of-touch character might seem little different from the clichéd sitcom dad we’ve seen so many times before.)
Other examples? Of familiar flaws given a timely tweak?
TRICKSTERS AND ’SPLAINING
Consider the classic “trickster” character archetype—appearing in modern stories as a scam artist who misleads others to obtain money, status, sex, power, etc. Examples in comedy range from mostly-normal people who tell little lies that backfire in unexpected ways (e.g., Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, 2000-), to deliberately deceitful jerks whose scams cause great damage to themselves and others (the John Beckwith character in Wedding Crashers, 2005).
Typically, these characters launch a scam by telling lies deliberately—they know exactly what they’re doing. But, what if a con-artist character operated with a different perspective, spawned by a recent trend in politics? What if part of that character’s flaw was that when they scammed others, they sincerely viewed their lies as “alternate truths”? No lies were told, so there’s no need to apologize if caught, and no reason to feel guilt after the deed. Imagine the fun possibilities of making other characters, both allies and opponents, deal with this scam artist’s warped logic and unapologetic attitude. The scams might not change, but subsequent confrontations would.
For another example, consider the act of “mansplaining.” This term’s no longer new or topical; it was named a New York Times word-of-the-year way back in 2010. But it suggests what could be a fresh take on the flaw that drives a condescending, always-judgmental character—how about developing a female character who’s a “womansplainer”? Or an other-gender character who’s an othersplainer? The modern equivalent—or opposite?—of a Michael Scott (The Office, 2005-) or a Ron Burgundy (Anchorman, 2004)? Same type of humor, from a fresh source.
WORTH A WRITER’S TIME?
This fine-tuning of character flaws, looking for a link to something topical, isn’t a big fix. And it isn’t needed for some characters and wouldn’t work for others. But, if a small tweak might suggest new story ideas or a fresh take on a character, isn’t that worth some thought?
Next time you’re creating a character, perhaps you should ask not only, “why this character,” but also “why this character now”?