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TV Pilot Writing: Developing Your World of Characters

October 13, 2016
3 min read time

Writing an original pilot can be just as daunting as writing a feature, though shorter in length. While a feature captures a moment in time, a pilot begins a longer journey. In a pilot, you need to tell a complete story, while also introducing the potential for many more story lines over an undetermined length of time. The most important way you can do this is through your characters. Introduce your audience to a world of characters you can hopefully maintain and explore for seasons to come.

Your premise can be as complex as heroes saving the world, or as simple as thirty-year-olds navigating life. Your characters, however, sell your concept. If your pilot has engaging, memorable characters, your show has a real shot at connecting with its intended audience, whether that's a manager/agent or a TV viewership. While your premise sets the conditions for character development, remember that situations may change – your characters may not be on that island forever, or stay single for the entire series. Make your characters interesting enough to shine through any situation.

Your characters not only drive your show but develop the interest that keeps your audience coming back - so make sure you know who your characters are. What makes them unique? Explore your characters by writing about their backstories, their wounds, their fears and their hopes. Strive to make them as complex and surprising as you can. The more you know about your characters (and knowing does not necessarily mean revealing said information in your pilot) the richer and more realistic your characters will be, and the more seamless your writing will feel. As we've seen in many recent TV series, your characters do not necessarily have to be likable, but they do need to be relatable.

A strong character introduction is crucial for creating interest in your characters and drawing your audience in. Action is a great vehicle for this. Give your audience something that conveys information beyond how old your characters are and what they look like. An action gives crucial insight into who your characters really are. Think of the first time we see Walter White in the pilot episode of Breaking Bad. He's frantically driving an RV in his underwear through the desert with a gas mask while his pants flutter in the wind. Or Liz Lemon, when we first meet her in the pilot of 30 Rock she's buying all the hot dogs from the hot dog vendor because one guy cut the line. These smart, funny, riveting introductions capture the essence of these characters and give us a sneak peek into what's in store for them later.

To that effect, knowing your character’s story arc through the course of a season is just as important as knowing their arcs in the pilot. Having a long-term game plan helps you create cohesion as well as foreshadowing in the pilot. It will help move you forward while helping you flesh out your first episode. Creating a show bible can help you plan ahead. It can help you visualize your show’s future and help you zero in on what you want to foreshadow in your first episode, how these characters are going to develop, and what obstacles they will have to face beyond the initial one you explore in your pilot.

Exploring the world of your pilot can also help you strengthen your characters. Where does your show take place? What time period? Is it our world or some parallel version of it? You can be as creative as you’d like when building your world, just make sure it makes sense for your show, your characters and your audience. If you are going to change reality, make sure you have a reason for the choices you make. Why are they important for the story you are telling?

And lastly, who do you want to appeal to? What themes will you be exploring? Think of your favorite comparable shows and see what networks they are on. What networks can you see your show on? HBO is very different than NBC or FX or CW. You need to know where your show fits in and who your audience is. It will help you establish a strong tone in your writing and a guideline for your characters' actions (and how far they can go).

In answering these questions you create a roadmap for your budding series. With this roadmap constructing your series will be that much easier. In the next article, we will cover some steps you can take to break down the process and make it more manageable and fun. In the meantime, enjoy getting to know your characters!

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