I think the general consensus among those writers who teach the craft is that you must read—and read widely—about the craft of writing, particularly those authors who write in your genre. But I think there’s a lot you can learn about writing from other mediums, too. Specifically television. Every other week, I’ll bring you takeaways from some of the best television shows out there. These are meant to be specific concepts, themes, techniques, etc., that a writer can learn from the show. This post will cover character development.
This week we'll take a look at Friends, specifically seasons one through five. I'll have a second half to this post (points 4–6), covering seasons six through ten, later. Potential spoilers follow. There's a lot to be learned from this sitcom, but I want to spend the first half of this post focusing on character development. There's a lot that happens in seasons one through five, and even more later, but viewers can see each character develop into their own unique person.
Previous posts of "What Television Can Teach Us About Writing"
Better Call Saul: A Study in Writing Excellent Characters
True Detective (Season 1): Creating Mood & Atmosphere in Your Fiction
Fargo (Season 1): Developing Terrifying Antagonists in Fiction
House of Cards: Writing a Strong Cast of Characters
Bloodline: A Study in Creating Conflict & Tension in Fiction
Wayward Pines: Developing Elements of Suspense in Fiction
The Office: Perfecting the Details in Your Fiction
The Path: How to Foreshadow Effectively in Fiction
House, MD: Crafting Smart and Compelling POVs in Fiction
Friday Night Lights: Creating a Strong Theme in Fiction
Fargo (Season 2): Learn to Strengthen the Dialogue in Your Fiction
7 Things How I Met Your Mother Can Teach Us About Writing
For those of you who don't know—and, sadly, I was one of those people a couple of months ago, having never given the show a chance—Friends follows the lives of six single friends in New York City. The show begins when Rachel Green runs out on her wedding, seeking out her childhood friend, Monica Geller. She moves in with Monica, joining her circle of friends: Joey Tribbiani, Chandler Bing, Phoebe Buffay, and Monica's brother Ross. The show spends the next ten years following their humorous adventures and mishaps in the world of dating and their careers.
1. Give Your Characters Room to Breathe
Here's the best way to achieve character development: Give your characters room to breathe. When the writers of Friends developed the idea for the series, David Crane and Marta Kauffman imagined that Joey and Monica would be the primary love-interest story. They were the most sexual of the characters, so it made sense for Joey and Monica to develop interest, attraction, and an eventual relationship.
However, it wasn't until writing the pilot and completing the casting that the writers explored the plot line that would become a central part of the story: Ross and Rachel's on-again-off-again relationship. So, from that pilot episode, the writers planted a major moment that became a big part of Ross and Rachel's character development: Ross had a crush on Rachel in high school. A major story line develops in that pilot. And it proceeds at a natural pace. Ross eventually builds up the courage to ask Rachel out, they begin dating, they break up, they get married on a drunken whim in Vegas, etc. But the writers let the characters decide how things were going to happen. The characters moved the story at their own pace, given that freedom.
Apply This Your Fiction
You need overarching plot points and a major story line in your fiction. You need your characters to stick to that plot line to keep the story moving. But you also need to give your characters the freedom to find themselves, discover their strengths and weaknesses, create a voice, and develop relationships (good and bad) with your other characters. And sometimes this is work that needs to happen outside the realm of your primary plot. They don't need to be enormous, earth-shattering moments, but you need character development. The characters at the end of your story shouldn't be the same ones readers meet in chapter one. And if you're going to enact change, you need to give your characters the space to operate and develop. Sometimes, like the writers of Friends discovered, your first idea may not be the best one.
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2. Let Character Development Happen Naturally
I mentioned the Ross-Rachel plot above, but there are plenty of other plots that develop slowly, and at their own pace throughout the seasons. They occur as the characters develop. A lot of this, I think, is best expressed through the show's use of running jokes. There's Ross's marital problems—his first wife turns out to be a lesbian, his second marriage (to Emily) gets off to a disastrous start when he says Rachel's name at the altar, and he, as mentioned, briefly marries Rachel—and three divorces. There's a running gag that Chandler could be gay (in fact, all the characters say when they first met him, they thought he was). And Joey struggles to find consistent work as an actor.
Most of these story lines occurred as the characters found themselves. For example, the writers didn't originally intend for Joey to be slow and dim-witted, or to be so heartfelt, but that was actor Matt LeBlanc's spin on the character. Also, we see Monica's cleanliness and quirks developed over the course of the series. One of the best examples of this is in the first season when Rachel decides to clean the apartment herself. Monica is upset by the subtle changes—she's the one who does the cleaning, because things need to be a certain way. The guys point out that this is Monica's major flaw. But Monica plays it off as no big deal, leaving her shoes out in the living room, to Rachel's shock. She then spends the rest of the night lying awake because her shoes are just out in the living room.
Apply This Your Fiction
This point goes hand-in-hand with the first one. Trust your instincts as a writer—if you practice writing regularly, you'll find that your instincts are rarely wrong. Characters and plots are organic. If things feel too formulaic, then you've got a problem. Let everything in your fiction happen in its own time. If you feel like you're introducing the antagonist or a romantic interest too soon, you probably are. Let the characters discover each other naturally, when they're ready and the story tells you they're ready. Think about this: Heroes and villains often clash early on in a plot. But the truly interesting encounters don't happen until much later, when the hero has developed into someone that can face the villain. Treat your characters the same way. Let the character development happen naturally, so that readers can see the change by the end of your story.
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3. Always Have a Second Major Plot Ready to Go
There are plenty of minor plot lines that are introduced in the first five seasons, intertwining with the major story of Ross and Rachel. But, the writers kept one extra, major story line ready to go for the season four finale: Chandler and Monica sleep together. This sparks a primary plot line in the fifth season, with Chandler and Monica trying to keep their relationship hidden from the rest of the group. Joey finds out about the relationship first, and his ability (or inability) to keep a secret is tested for much of the season, leading up to the hilarious "The One Where Everybody Finds Out."
Ross and Rachel are no longer an item at this point—in fact, Ross has married Emily. The writers couldn't rely on this plot to carry the series. They needed a fresh story, a new love interest within the group. Short of introducing a new character, creating a secret relationship between two characters was the only realistic option. It's the culmination of great character development, too. Chandler, in many ways, is always just the "funny guy" in the group. His friends don't always take him seriously. And Monica lives in Ross and Rachel's shadows—Ross is their parents' favorite, and Rachel's drama almost always trumps anything from Monica. Their first night together happens because of these same feelings: Chandler's best man speech doesn't go over well, and Monica is mistaken for her own mother. They feel underappreciated. This story line thrusts them into the spotlight.
Apply This Your Fiction
One plot line is never enough. If you find your major plot dragging at any point, you need to have something else ready to go. (Of course, if your primary plot isn't getting it done, then the story probably is already lost.) Having two major plots intersecting or intertwining in fiction can be a good thing, if you can find the right balance. This is best practiced in a novel with multiple main characters. If you have just one protagonist, it's better to stick to the primary plot, rather than mixing in another major story. But if you have multiple characters, give the reader a second story. It will allow you to better explore all of your characters, and make your fiction feel more complete—and real.
Are you a fan of Friends? Let us know in the comments, and share anything you’ve learned from the show that can be applied to writing—there's simply too much to cover in just one post, which is why you should stay tuned for the second half of this one! If you have suggestions for future posts in this same vein, feel free to post those in the comments, too!
Cris Freese is an associate editor for Writer’s Digest Books and the Writer’s Market series. You can follow him on Twitter @crisfreese, where you can laugh at his frustrations as a hopeless Cincinnati sports fan.