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Writing Comedy Characters

Updated: Feb 22

Today I was asked an interesting question: Why do modern comedy shows lack the longevity of their predecessors? Are comedy writers putting in enough work when creating new characters? Or have sitcoms become too tangled up in plot twists to remember the true stats of the show? 


Now do not get me wrong - I am no expert in writing comedy characters and do not wish to overplay my hand. Novelists and screenwriters spend hours agonising over intricate backstories and finding out what their character easts for breakfast, but I think comedy writers prefer to keep things easy. But whether penning a blockbuster or a sitcom, there are a few key ingredients that every character should possess. Get comfortable, and let’s uncover the secrets to crafting a comedy character. 

 

1. They must be Original. 

Above all else, when creating a new character, they must be a new character. While it is beneficial for them to be recognisable, as it reduces the need for excessive signposting for jokes to land, they must also possess a unique quality. Take Ron Burgundy and Alan Partridge, for instance; both are flamboyant, big haired broadcasters, yet each occupies their own distinct niche.  

Similarly, characters like Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses or Doc Brown from Back To The Future have endured the test of time because their larger-than-life personas distinguish them from the crowd. These characters are irreplaceable, with their memorable traits ensuring their longevity. However, if the comedy landscape were inundated with countless imitations of shady market traders and eccentric scientists, the success of these shows may have been compromised.  


2. They must be Familiar. 

Do not confuse familiarity with sameness. While characters may differ greatly, they can still share similar personality traits. A remarkable comedy character is driven by a desire and will go to great lengths to achieve it, even if it involves bending the rules or taking shortcuts. Take Del Boy, Alan Partridge, Basil Fawlty, and David Brent, iconic figures in British comedy history. Despite their differences, they all portray flawed businesspeople willing to step on others to fulfil their ambitions, yet they never quite reach the top of their game; they are more like everyday folks you may encounter on the street or at work. Whether it is a guy at the pub peddling bootleg DVD’s, an aspiring performer who oversells his talents, a disillusioned small business owner, or a clueless line manager with a misplaced sense of humous - these characters feel familiar to us. 


3. They must be Flawed. 

This aspect of character development is often the most challenging. A prime example is Fleabag, who openly admits to being a ‘bad feminist.’ Despite her desire for self-improvement and success, she is constantly undermined by her significant flaw. Few things are as frustrating as watching a TV show, film, or play and thinking “In real life, that character would have been fired or imprisoned.” A skilled writer ensure that their characters’ flaws are balanced against their achievements. Take Miranda from the TV show of the same name, for instance. She frequently exhibits absurd and implausible behaviour, yet it somehow feels justified within the context of her running a joke shop.  


4. They must be Discontented. 

If your character possesses everything they desire, where do we find our stories? Del Boy’s repetitive declaration, “This time next year, we’ll be millionaires,” indicates to the audience that he wok never be content until he attains wealth. Similarly, Alan Partridge’s lament, “You’re all on the BBC gravy train - I wish I was,” illustrates his futile pursuit to reclaim his television career. The relentless pursuit of satisfaction by these characters seamlessly propels the story forward.  


5. They must take initiative. 

Protagonists must take charge of the narrative. This explains why Hyacinth Bucket was the main character, not Onslow! Some writers become entangled in superficial humour, allowing amusing events and witty remarks to unfold, but without a character driving the plot forward, the audience’s attention wavers. These writers may do better as joke writers for Have I Got News For You!   Go back and watch a TV sitcom, film, or play (though the latter may be less accessible) and observe how at least one character propels the storyline by actively pursuing and idea.  


6. They should all be Different. 

Until now, the focus has primarily been on crafting individual characters, possibly even centring on your main character. How can you make them more relatable, proactive, and flawed? However, comedies do not tend to exist in a single character vacuum, there are other people involved.  

This is where character diversity becomes crucial. How various characters respond to the same situation, setting, or news can not only generate hilarious comedy moments but also develop more well-rounded characters. Del Boy, Rodney, and Grandad may share similar backgrounds, family ties, and occupations, but their distinct personalities set them apart. If Grandad were merely and older version of Del Boy, what purpose would he serve? None. He must be unique.  


7. They should be Believable. 

Creating believable characters does not mean making them dull. While your friend who is a local vicar might have some funny stories, they certainly are not Geraldine from The Vicar of Dibley. No one is, that is the point. When crafting comedy characters, it is essential to amplify their traits and push the boundaries of reality. Write your characters as eccentric as you envision them to be, but during the editing process, question if they remain within the realm of plausibility.  

John Cleese famously drew inspiration from an audacious hotelier in Torquay to create Basil Fawlty. However, I am certain that the real-life inspiration’s day-to-day life was relatively mundane before Cleese infused it with comedic magic. While you may never have witnesses someone venting their frustration on a broken-down car with a broken tree branch, we have all experienced the emotions that drive Basil Fawlty to his outbursts.  


8. They should be Unteachable. 

While this principle may not be as relevant in film and theatre, where characters often undergo personal growth, it holds significant weight in sitcoms. By the end of a long-form comedy, viewers typically expect characters to have gleaned some wisdom from their experiences. Not always, mind you. When you look at Alan from the first Hangover film, he remains unchanged as his bad decision to spike the bottle of Jägermeister resulted in him sharing an adventure with his friends.  

However, in sitcoms, it is crucial that character remain unteachable. If Del suddenly acquired real trading skills, or if Alan learned to be a competent TV presenter, or if Baldric gained any modicum of intelligence, their characters would be resolved, lose their charm, and become redundant to the writer.  


9. They should embrace Ignorance.  

If Alan Partridge were aware of the absurdity of his ideas, if Hyacinth Bucket understood how others perceived her, or if Mr. Bean possessed even a shred of self-awareness, the comedic essence of these shows would diminish significantly. This point is most poignant when looking at the Christmas Special of The Office, where Brent finally grasps the extend of people’s distain for him, perfectly concluding the sitcom.  


While crafting comedy characters is far from an exact science, and these guidelines are not a guaranteed recipe for success, they can serve as a valuable resource when you find yourself stuck in a creative rut. 


Writing comedy chartacters

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