One of the core tenets of graphic design is “Show, don’t tell.” It’s a simple truism at face value, but when viewed as a way of writing television, it’s surprising how much some shows benefit from it as a method of writing character interactions. I’ve noticed that most of my favorite shows of the last few years show exactly who each character is supposed to be early on, with changes and eccentricities being introduced slowly over time. Also, viewing your characters as pieces of a larger puzzle is the best way to strengthen the viewer’s connection to them because it directly encourages empathy.
Take Futurama for example. As shown by the header of this very article, each member of the main cast can be easily identified from a silhouette. You’ve got Leela with the poofy hair and efficient bun, Zoidberg’s creepy eyes and mouth, Bender’s eye and head shape, Fry’s hair swirl and upper lip, and the Professor’s…posture/creepy head. These silhouettes actually tell you quite a bit about the characters that they represent, and how they would interact with one another. Fry and Leela both seem fairly young and relatively normal-looking, so they’re probably friends. Zoidberg and Bender look clearly alien or at least inhuman, so one could assume this is some sort of sci-fi show. And just a few more leaps of logic from there, and you can extrapolate that maybe the robot and the human male are friends based on so many films from the 80s depicting this exact idea, and that the Professor is probably a crazy person. It’s these little guesses and stories where we fill in backstory that form the basis of a good cast. From there, the show sets about to defy those expectations. Fry and Bender fight all the time, Leela has the tendency to be a little unhinged, and the Professor shows genuine pathos when some of his experiments go awry. By the end of the show, we’re attracted more to what the characters have become, and less of what they started as.
This concept doesn’t just apply to drawn animation. Lost was another show that spends most of its first season introducing and slowly fleshing out characters. Each character had a stereotypical role, and the later seasons were, at the best, all about everyone trying to defy these roles. Unfortunately, Lost started to fall apart when the story was less about the characters and more about the stories happening to them. Which of the following plots from Lost sounds more interesting to you: Locke engages in faux military training and lives in a fantasy world all his adult life before finally taking on a leadership role on the Island, or Jack got Chinese tattoos from an Asian woman? You need to write from the bottom up, with characters and their motivations coming before what happens to them. Build the silhouettes before you fill them in.
A related writing technique for television characters is the “puzzle pieces” method. The idea here is that each character is a vivid, specific piece of a puzzle. Some pieces fit in with several others, and you can make something resembling an image by arranging them randomly, but there is only one absolute configuration of characters. The many television projects of Joss Whedon are classic examples of this: In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, everyone is dating someone else at some point. The good relationships stay because they fit, but the bad ones slowly show themselves to be ugly and messy (ahem, Buffy and Riley ahem.) That doesn’t mean that Buffy can only be with the people who she fits with; it’s all about experimenting with different interactions until you see what works (Buffy and Willow, Willow and Xander, Spike and Xander, Xander and Anya, Xander and anyone). Viewing TV writing in this way makes bad episodes and pairings make much more sense, since it argues that the writers were just trying something new.
Shows that blend both of these writing methods are one in a million, and they almost always received universal praise when it works. So next time you’re watching your favorite television show, stop and think about what exactly you find so appealing about it.