Writing the TV Pilot: Does Your Character Need to Change?


The WireHBO

As I discussed in my last article, great writing begins with getting your vulnerabilities out on the page — the parts of you that you don’t normally express, the truths that you don’t normally look at, the characters that exist inside you: both the beautiful ones that you want to share with the world, and also the ones that scare or disgust you, who often represent parts of you that you don’t want to believe are possible, or that you’d never express in the outside world.

 That doesn’t mean that you are your characters. It means that you contain them. Some, in a form that is already integrated into your personality, and others in a form that is not integrated, or not expressed.

 Meditation experts talk about breath as a waveform, a symbol of the polarity of life — the inhale and the exhale, the positive and the negative, the good and the bad, the yin and the yang, the dark and the light.

 And I’d like to suggest to you to think of writing as a waveform as well.

 In our Western society, we are taught to push out the negative, to judge it, to blame it, to feel guilt about it. But Eastern thought views it in a different way: as a natural part of that waveform, existing as a balance.

To put it in a simple way: whatever you (or your characters) are expressing in the world, the opposite also exists in you (and them), in equal proportion, whether it is expressed or not.

 It is actually the existence of this polarity that makes structure possible. Because it is the existence of this polarity that makes change possible. Neither you, nor your characters are fixed entities. You’re not just one way. We are constantly changing. Breathing in and breathing out.  

Think about who you were in high school. Then think of who you are now. Think about the vast difference between those two characters.

 Yet, we don’t think about ourselves as constantly changing. We think about ourselves as fixed entities. I am this. Or I am that. And we often think of our characters in the same way.


 In classic television — if you think back to shows like Seinfeld or The Golden Girls, that was necessary.

Back then, shows were distributed in a serialized form, where characters never changed. The distribution model meant that the real money was made in reruns which often came out of order. An audience needed to be able to see Episode 3 of Seinfeld and then episode 125 of Seinfeld and still feel like Jerry Seinfeld was Jerry Seinfeld. So structure had to grow from a different place — from the situation in which you put these static characters. (That’s where the word sitcom comes from: situation comedy).

But if you think about what’s happening on TV today, you’ll see that a big shift has happened in many shows. That the characters are not static. That they change in tremendous ways. And with this shift in structure, we’ve also seen a renaissance in television and webseries writing.

This shift was fueled not only by the bold choices of showrunners on great shows like The Wire, or Breaking Bad or Arrested Development but also by a change in the business model of television, as studios and networks switched from a serialized distribution model, where reruns were watched in random order, to a Video on Demand model, where shows were binge watched from start to finish.

Because of the episodic quality of TV series and the different structural demands that come with it, the way that a character changes structurally in TV and Web Series will likely always be different from feature films. But nevertheless, the concept is the same. The most powerful form of structure comes from a character, who just like us, believes themselves to be a static, very specific kind of person, who then through a huge change in which an unexpressed part of their own polarity comes to light and is integrated into their being.

Breaking BadAMC

This could be a beautiful expression of a repressed capacity for love, like we see in BoJack Horseman’s character in Season 3 (even though he can’t hold onto it).  Or it could be an expression of a repressed darkness, like a good man’s capacity for selfishness and violence that we see in Walter White’s character in Breaking Bad.

It doesn’t matter whether the change is positive, or negative. It is the capacity for change (or even refusal to change in the light of that capacity) that draws us into these characters’ journeys. Because it is that capacity that sheds light on our own capacity to change.

That doesn’t mean your character needs to change in every episode. Change tends to happen much differently in TV than in feature films, happening gradually over time, sometimes over many seasons, in a way that’s actually a little more like real life.

But it does mean that thinking about your character’s capacity to change, or failure to do so, will likely add another layer of depth to your writing, and another level of connection to your audience.

That’s because this is the one thing we all have in common. We all want to change.

And that desire is a natural expression of the polarity in all of us. The desire to be fully ourselves. To integrate both the inhale and the exhale. The dark and the light sides of our nature.

The founder of Jacob Krueger Studio in NYC, Jacob Krueger has worked with thousands of writers, from Academy and Tony Award winners, to new writers facing the blank page for the first time. His writing includes The Matthew Shepard Story, for which he won the Writers Guild of America Paul Selvin Award and was nominated for a Gemini Award for Best Screenplay. To follow Jacob’s podcast or learn more about his Screenwriting Workshops, Online Classes, One-on-One Mentorship and International Retreats please visit WriteYourScreenplay.com.

If you have your own pilot, considering submitting it to the Launch Pad Pilots Competition. The last day to submit entries for the 2017 competition is February 28.


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