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Can you create sitcom characters that are awful humans yet still likeable?

In this blog I discuss creating characters that are deeply flawed, even unpleasant, and yet the audience want to spend time with them. (With thanks to the members over on the Comedy Crowd site who inspired this topic.)

So often writers get the feedback that their characters aren’t likeable and yet at the same time there are often sitcoms with characters who behave badly and aren’t obviously likeable; Fleabag being a recent case in point. Rather than simply thinking in terms likeability it can be helpful to think about “characters the audience want to spend time with”. Characters don’t need to be simply likeable; they can be disagreeable and yet we the viewers still want to be in their company. How does this work?

Here are useful ways you can think about creating flawed characters that at the same time the audience still will want to spend time with:​

Think about your character in terms of persona/shadow and self-awareness. Their persona side being their likeable aspects and the shadow side being all the aspects of them that make them a disagreeable character. They then have self-awareness of their failings or not. Then ask yourself: do they care of not? Characters who have a likeable persona/ are flawed with a clear shadow/ and yet aware of it (high self-awareness) / and struggling to be better can be very likeable to an audience (for instance Horgan and Delaney’s characters in Catastrophe). These characters care and want to be better but keep tripping themselves up.

If however the character is comically unaware of their shadow (low self-awareness), then they are more tragically comic and less obviously likeable but there can be an appalling fascination to these kinds of characters (Alan Partridge being a great example.) These characters don’t care because they don’t realise there is a problem or at least are not willing to acknowledge or address it and blame everyone else (Basil Fawlty).

Characters who have a strong shadow and don’t obviously have a likeable persona side can still be engaging for the audience if they are wish fulfilment characters. By which I mean, the character does behave appallingly but does the kinds of things we the audience would love to do if we were bold/reckless enough. For example Blackadder and Larry David in Curb. They are aware of their shadow, don’t care and we love it.

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