Author Topic: Number of characters in Pilot episode  (Read 1905 times)

Khamanna

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Number of characters in Pilot episode
« on: June 18, 2013, 04:35:05 PM »
Hi all!

I don't participate much but I will:)

I have a question on a pilot - writing a sitcom pilot right now and stumbled upon this thought:
I try to remember/watch/read as many pilots as I can and the number of characters in pilots is limited to bare minimum. Am I wrong? Maybe you can point me towards something that isn't.

I'm interested in sitcoms, but if you don't know sitcoms dramas will do, I guess. I wish you could point me towards a sitcom though.

My pilot just won't do with only main characters in a pilot. Others don't have much, maybe a line or two, but they are in it. Should I strive for less characters in a pilot then or not?

Thanks.

Writer Arena

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Re: Number of characters in Pilot episode
« Reply #1 on: June 18, 2013, 05:23:13 PM »
Think about the characters in a sitcom in terms of starring and recurring roles.  Starring roles should be introduced in the pilot - recurring roles, maybe - maybe not.    Plus there's no rule that you can't add a star mid-season.

The most important thing to remember when writing a sitcom.  Is that it starts in a happy place which is turned topsy turvy in an exaggerated way.  Then it returns to the happy place in the same episode.  Characters don't have arcs throughout the season.  They have to stay the same from episode to episode. 

Daniel Botha

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Re: Number of characters in Pilot episode
« Reply #2 on: June 18, 2013, 07:43:19 PM »
Hi Khamanna. Welcome :)

I don't know much about writing sitcoms or TV scripts (haven't tried it out myself) but Michael's advice seems solid enough. Sitcoms as a whole are usually limited to a small number of main characters, which can easily be introduced effectively in the pilot episode. Think of all modern sitcoms: Big Bang Theory, Two and A Half Men and Modern Family all have small casts to allow producers to introduce each character individually.

I'd say that if you keep your cast relatively small, you won't have an issue. Also, don't stress too much about introducing minor characters in a pilot. I wouldn't see an issue.

Dan

Alex

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Re: Number of characters in Pilot episode
« Reply #3 on: June 18, 2013, 11:13:58 PM »
Hey Khamanna,

Good to see you on WA and welcome to the boards.

I think the advice from Michael and Dan is spot on and you should introduce the main starring characters and bring on as many characters as you need to tell the story.

Most sitcoms are usually written with minimal characters as well as minimal and recurring locations in order to keep the costs down.
This also reduces the need for many extras.... For example if you where to have a scene in a coffee shop then you need the main characters, barista, waitress and other customers. You could be talking 20 characters in total for one scene. A producer would frown at this and that's why many sitcoms are filmed in apartments or confined spaces.

Screenwriting is a business and the greater the costs the less chance of a screenplay getting produced.

Good luck and happy to return the favor and do a read.

Regards Alex
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Khamanna

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Re: Number of characters in Pilot episode
« Reply #4 on: June 19, 2013, 02:08:58 AM »
Thanks guys for advice and support.

The later series, I think, can have all the characters I need - but the pilots are different. The pilots are just the main characters. I started noticing that about them, but wasn't sure.

I have a lot of main characters too - 6 of them. So it kind of feels cluttered, but I haven't finished.
I also have a BUTTLER, NANNY, SUIT, FATHER - the characters that have very few lines if any. And without these my first act will be strange.

I'll take up on your advice and keep everyone and see how it goes, I guess.

Manowar

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Re: Number of characters in Pilot episode
« Reply #5 on: September 10, 2013, 08:02:19 AM »
Hey, Khamanna. If you were writing a drama pilot, you'd have 60 minutes to stagger various characters' intros. But with sitcoms you only get 30 minutes, so it's obviously much more difficult to intro new characters that no one has ever met before because, well, it's the pilot.

But six characters doesn't seem too much of a stretch to intro. "Fresh Prince" had Will, Carlton, Phillip and Vivian Banks, their two daughters Ashley and Hillary, and the Butler (though he wasn't as key as the others). "Cheers" had Sam, Carla, Cliff, Norm, Frasier, Woody, and either Rebecca or Diane. Obviously, not every character had a lot of screen time in every episode--except for Will in Fresh Prince and Sam in Cheers--but neither will the characters in your pilot. Choose which two or three to focus on for this episode, then bring in the others gradually for a quick cameo, or something to that effect. The key is how to keep the reader from getting confused by having too many new characters on the same page.

I don't know if you start with a teaser or dive right into your first Act, but either way, your best bet might be to perhaps open the first scene on 2 major characters. Allow the reader to get used to them before intro'ing a third character later in the Act. Take all 3 into the 2nd Act, and halfway in intro characters 4 and 5. Maybe bring in number 6 by the end of the act, or in the beginning of the 3rd Act, depending on what your story needs are. If you have one recurring gag that revolves around a character constantly having a funny intro in every episode (like Kramer in "Seinfeld" or Norm in "Cheers") then you could get away with intro'ing your zany character briefly without him or her having too much other purpose in that particular episode.

It would be an uphill battle for you if you decided to intro all 6 at the same time in Act 1. Since the reader is just learning about these characters, it would be very difficult to distinguish one from the other if they're all in the same room on the first page--watching a sitcom that opens like this isn't as difficult, but reading it would be. If you're very skilled and can really differentiate your characters well, you might be able to have four of them intro'd in your first couple pages, but your best bet might be staggering them a bit to allow the reader time to know them.  Think about yourself at a party and you're introduced to various people. If you talk to two new people for ten minutes, you're more likely to remember their names (and get to know more about them) by the time you're introduced to two other people. But if you're introduced to all four people at once, it'll be harder remembering their names, alcohol notwithstanding.

Obviously your six characters will have different personality traits and different ways of saying things, but something as simple as paying attention to the names you give them could go a long way in differentiating them for the reader. I used to read a lot of SPs from other writers in exchange for them reading mine and I found when there were names that rhymed or began with the same letter, I'd get them confused. For example, if you have one major character named Bob, try to avoid naming another Rob or Bill. Also, too many names with one syllable tended to confuse me (if there were a lot of characters to keep track of): Bob, Ken, Joe, Phil. Very bland. I mean, obviously you can have multiple characters with mono-syllabic names (just look at the cast of "Cheers" listed above), but the subtle difference of the number of syllables from name to name can help you--Ann, Linda, Margaret, and Phil, Jeffrey, Agador. It would also help if you used at least one ethnic name (Carlos, Haji, Yuri) as it A. makes the story more believable these days since most of us live in areas with a lot of ethnic mixtures, and B. it automatically sets that character aside from the others, since it's not a typical Anglo name. If your sitcom is about mostly ethnic people, then maybe one or two Anglo characters would make it easier telling them apart as well. Just watch out for using too many names that are hard to pronounce. You can also consider a character who goes by a strange nickname, like Woody in "Cheers" or the character Stainer in the movie "She's Out of my League." There's little chance Stainer would be confused with the other players.

So, if you use an ethnic name and a strange nickname, now you only have to focus on four other names, keeping their syllables in mind, along with the first letter of each name, and avoiding rhyming. Your cast could look like this: Haji, Stainer, Phil, Jeffrey, Margaret, and Ann. On names alone, the reader isn't likely to get these six characters confused. But you will still have to really work on differentiating them by the way they talk, by what's important to them (which should clash with each other), and by their world outlooks on things like pop culture, politics, dating mores, etc.

Hope this helped. Try getting your hands on a copy of the pilot for "The Mindy Project"--very funny sitcom with one major character, Mindy, but with about four or five other characters who fight for a lot of screen time. Same with "Friends." Good luck.

Jeremiah Johnson

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Re: Number of characters in Pilot episode
« Reply #6 on: September 10, 2013, 02:33:22 PM »
That's good info Manowar.  Also, look at Seinfeld.  A show about "nothing."  Had four main characters, even though Jerry is the "main" character.  Newman and the Soup Nazi (and others) had reoccurring roles, but the focus was on the four.

I've written a TV pilot but it is a 1hr drama, so I'm not much help.  If you decide to go that route, give me a shout.  Mine is not the best, but I'm a finalist in CWA contest.

Good luck with it.

Manowar

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Re: Number of characters in Pilot episode
« Reply #7 on: September 10, 2013, 10:42:30 PM »

I've written a TV pilot but it is a 1hr drama, so I'm not much help.  If you decide to go that route, give me a shout.  Mine is not the best, but I'm a finalist in CWA contest.

Good luck with it.
Dude, me, too! Which one is yours? Good luck. Think the final cut gets announced Wednesday. Fingers crossed for ya.

Manowar

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Re: Number of characters in Pilot episode
« Reply #8 on: September 13, 2013, 05:53:58 PM »
Well, alas, didn't make it through to the final cut in CWA. What about you, Jeremiah? Any luck? Still have fingers crossed for ya.

Khamanna

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Re: Number of characters in Pilot episode
« Reply #9 on: September 13, 2013, 06:29:28 PM »
Oh, wait - I haven't seen the new posts here! - sorry. I'll read and comment shortly.

Khamanna

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Re: Number of characters in Pilot episode
« Reply #10 on: September 13, 2013, 06:36:15 PM »
Thanks Manowar! It actually pushes me to rethink my sitcom. The thing is it's a lot of characters in my first act as it's a funeral and only main characters are left in the second act. Maybe I structured it all wrong, but it won't work any other way.
But yeah, it's a lot of characters with no names labeled as Nanny, Butler, Attorney - they all disappear forever shortly.
This is what it's about - the woman with four kids has to move into cheaper place after her husband gets lost in the mountains. So she parts with the help and everyone else and announces the changes.
I figured the funeral would be ideal place to start this.

What's a CWA?

Jeremiah Johnson

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Re: Number of characters in Pilot episode
« Reply #11 on: September 13, 2013, 10:52:30 PM »
Khamanna,

Sounds like it should be okay the way you have that.  I haven't read it, but as long as they are all gone in the same episode shouldn't be an issue.  The CWA is the Creative World Awards.  They have a TV part of the contest.

I haven't heard anything.  As far as I know, I'm still in.  I made the finalists (top 18 scripts in Original TV Pilot), but should know today or tomorrow if I made top 3 or not.

Thanks.

Jeremiah Johnson

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Re: Number of characters in Pilot episode
« Reply #12 on: September 13, 2013, 10:56:20 PM »
Dude, me, too! Which one is yours? Good luck. Think the final cut gets announced Wednesday. Fingers crossed for ya.


Thanks Manowar.  I haven't heard anything yet.  Making the Finalist is already a super high for me.  Even if I don't win feeling pretty good about it, especially since this script has been beat up pretty bad by my peers.  It is nice to know I'm not completely crazy in thinking it wasn't THAT BAD!

Mine is Sheriff of Nowhere.  Which is yours?

Danny

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Re: Number of characters in Pilot episode
« Reply #13 on: October 01, 2013, 03:47:37 PM »
you'd have 60 minutes to stagger various characters' intros. But with sitcoms you only get 30




Most networks the screen time is 22 min and 45 min, due to adverts , commercials