When I receive a series bible for the first time, there is always at least one character that stands out. Perhaps it is because this character reminds me of someone I know, or I feel some sort of relationship with him or her or, most likely, I can see potential in that character for plot, humour or both.
When I receive scripts from other writers it is clear to me that everyone responds like this. Some writers will write tremendous dialogue and action for one character and perfunctory dialogue and action for others. This is why the best series have more than one writer. All the same, it is important not to make the common mistake:
3. Don’t fall in love with the wrong character.
When we made Fireman Sam, we created a character, Mike, who was a handyman. He was married to the district nurse. Jack of all trades, master of none, Mike was likeable, happy-go-lucky but totally hopeless at his work. When we created him, we thought that the accidents he provoked with plumbing, building and carpentry disasters would create storylines that resulted in calling out the fire engine.
This, unfortunately, was not to be. The executive producers, who were all women, did not like this character. They could not understand how the obviously intelligent district nurse could have married such a klutz. (Are they living in a different planet? Don’t we all know intelligent women married to less intelligent men?) More appropriately, they were worried that accidents caused by D-I-Y disasters in the home might give children watching a sense of insecurity in the home.
A couple of the writers loved this character. They came up with stories featuring Mike, with hilarious dialogue that would be recognised by anyone who has ever employed a cowboy plumber. However much we told them that this character was only a bit player, they could not resist featuring him in their storylines, most of which were bound to be rejected.
Children’s television, especially for pre-school, demands role models. These tend to people who can do no wrong. When Fireman Sam was first created, the intention was that he should be a loveable eccentric, whose hobby was coming up with crackpot inventions. This gave him a little personality, and made him more believable as a human being. He was always supposes to be “The Hero Next Door”
After 9/11 it became impossible to portray him as anything other than a perfect hero. This meant that that he became a token, a symbol, who could never make a mistake, show a moment of weakness or indulge in inappropriate behaviour. That made it very difficult to write stories about him. Isn’t it our faults and eccentricities that make us interesting? This gave the writers a lot of problems, since Sam had to be the hero of every episode. In reality, Sam’s role in the stories was always rather passive until it came to driving the fire engine (the real hero of the series) and squirting water from a hose.
Many series for children suffer from having dull characters who are so busy being good role models that they exhibit no personality at all. This is why writers prefer to feature the supporting characters, who are usually allowed to exhibit human foibles.
We like to create leading characters for our series who are far from perfect. Igam Ogam, for example is a very wilful toddler. This series rates well because the viewers, toddlers and their parents, immediately recognise her behaviour and are able to laugh at it. She always gets her comeuppance. The voice of reason is represented by a large dinosaur, a parent figure who always makes sure that order is restored.
Most series for children are not like this. The received wisdom is that series without a leading character who is a role model will not succeed in North America. This is probably why American series for pre-school children feature characters who are relentlessly nice to each other, and so often seem sentimental and dull to our European eyes.
Next: Common mistakes. Conclusion.