There are an almost unbelievable number of things that go into developing a television pilot — everything from the premise of the story to the structure of the script, the transitions between scenes, the dialogue characters say, sluglines, descriptions, act outs, and the like.
But two elements rise to the top as the most important for any given TV show: Character and Theme.
Both are individually important and inextricably linked in your story — which I’ll get to later.
First, let’s look at CHARACTER.
Character is who your show is about. Whether you’re dealing with a fully-fledged ensemble or a solo act, character functions in the same way within your show. Character is the way into any story for the audience.
Your audience can relate to, aspire to be, love, dislike, or absolutely hate, want to be friends with, feel in awe of, confused by, or intrigued by your characters — or any combination of the above.
Humans naturally look for stories about human emotion, in any shape or form (which is why animated movies about bugs, robots, or cars work just as well as those about human beings). Feeling something — anything — for a character creates an essential connection between the audience and fiction.
That connection, in turn, makes us forget about the screen itself. It allows us to take the story we’re watching on our living room TV or laptop screen as seriously as we would an event in our own life — at least for the 20- to 60-minute run-time, that is.
Character is crucial in that way, but also as a function of storytelling.
The characters you create must be so interesting, so compelling, that the viewer wants to watch them do their thing episode after episode, season after season. If at any point the audience feels a character drift or become boring, or fade into the background, that essential connection will be lost, the channel switched, the viewer gone.
Character is a conduit and the source of plot, yes, but character is also the very inlet through which your audience connects.
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Which brings us to the second element: THEME.
Theme is what your story is about, deep down, at its core. It’s what resonates with your audience members on a personal level; the universal truth they understand implicitly that makes them relate to a story.
Viewers watch Parks and Recreation because they love the characters, but the show resonates on a personal level because of the themes. We may not have Leslie Knope’s gusto for local government, but when she’s in those frustrating public forums, we know what it feels like to be fighting a losing battle and attempt to remain optimistic. We may not have experience organizing Unity Concerts or Harvest Festivals, but we know what it’s like to work with a team of colleagues who feel like family.
But theme is not plot. It is not the events that happen to your characters or the scenes those events happen in. Theme is the meaning of those things, both on and off the page.
This is where character comes back in because the theme is ultimately presented by and through character.
On Shonda Rhimes’ long-running medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, the theme of each episode is presented in a voiceover by one of the characters (usually Meredith Grey) at the beginning and end of the episode. But the characters and the patients they treat also embody that theme in a real, physical way — more than just Meredith’s well-written musings.
The theme doesn’t need to be that obvious, but it cannot be so hidden, so buried beneath dialogue and exposition that it doesn’t resonate with the characters themselves. The themes of wealth, humility, and small-town life would be nothing if the Rose family didn’t deal with them directly on Schitt’s Creek.
Your characters must, to some degree, grapple with the themes of your show. And those themes must pertain to and grow organically from who your characters are. In that way, you cannot really have one without the other.
All elements of your show are important, but no two are as interconnected as character and theme. Consider these elements your starting point and everything else will spring forth naturally as you develop and write your story.
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.