Non-Literary Characters

While this blog is generally for the literary-minded, I’ve been thinking lately about characters that are written for the screen, rather than the page. Specifically, for the small screen, because I think we’d be here until the end of time trying to pin down the greatest characters in film. Anyway, I like T.V. My appreciation for a good story and strong characters is not limited to novels; in fact, sometimes I prefer to sit down and witness some truly great television writing instead. (Likewise, sometimes I watch marathons of What Not to Wear, but that’s a story for another time.)
I don’t know if you all have been noticing this, but in recent years, the quality of T.V. shows has gone way up. Shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, Lost, The West Wing, My So-Called Life, and Firefly are (and in some unfortunate cases, were) the equivalents of literary fiction. They have depth, complexity, character development, suspense, familiarity, and they do not shy away from heightened dialogue or ideas. Also, like with a novel, you cannot start in the middle.
Speaking more specifically to the characters themselves, I’ve been trying to figure out who I think are the greatest T.V. characters of all-time. I hate coming up with “greatest” lists because everything is so subjective, so I bring you my top five favorite characters (who I secretly consider the best):
5) Ted Baxter, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I know, this is before my time. But, in my opinion, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was way ahead of its time, so it all balances out. Without Ted Baxter, I don’t think we’d have nearly the number of lovable oafs on T.V. as there are today. Since Ted may have been responsible for Phil Dunphy (Modern Family), then for that reason alone, he must be acknowledged.
4) George Constanza, Seinfeld. My love of George ended around season six or seven when I thought he became too cartoonishly evil, but the early years of George represented a perfect combination of New York neurosis and immaturity. He’s not person you’d necessarily like in real life, but you love him from the safe distance behind the camera.
3) Milhouse Van Houten, The Simpsons. With The Simpsons, it’s hard to pick just one. Sure, Homer might be considered the “best,” but Milhouse, much like in his life in Springfield, is vastly underrated and under-appreciated. Inspiration for children of divorced parents and to anyone who’s ever known the pain of unrequited romance (and friendship), Milhouse just wants to be loved. And he is, by me. “Everything’s coming up Milhouse!” indeed.
2) The Mayor, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Yes, he was only on for one season and he wasn’t a principal player. Choosing a “best” character from what I consider the “best” show is a bit like choosing my favorite child, but, to me, Mayor Richard Wilkins III was such an amazingly crafted character. The ultimate villain, an instrument of pure evil, and the square father figure who reminds you that good hygiene and manners never hurt anyone. Of Mr. Whedon’s many (many!) brilliant characters, I am always most impressed by The Mayor.

1) Brian Krakow, My So-Called Life. Brian, Brian, Brian. Is there a better character in the history of television? He’s the boy next door who you don’t really want to end up with the girl after all. He’s hardly the lovable nerd, but he can’t be called totally manipulative either because half the time he’s just too clueless. Brian is funny, sad, misunderstood, and real. He’s just, in a word, perfect.


Honorable mentions: Liz Lemon, 30 Rock and Sue Sylvester, Glee. These women may be different in personality, but they have this in common: they are strong, funny, and driven, and there need to be more women on T.V. like them.


I notice a theme in my most beloved characters. They are all people who are a little bit sad, a little bit hard to like, and impossible not to love. Complexity and originality are the keys of creating strong, memorable characters. How do you approach building your characters in your own work? Are there certain T.V. characters you use as inspiration?

7 thoughts on “Non-Literary Characters

  1. Kinda late to this, but Cristina and Owen off Grey's Anatomy. Love those characters, partly because they are/were amazingly well-written (I think Season Six Owen's gone downhill, much to my horror) and partly because they are played by such fantastic performers.


  2. Great post, Sarah! I love George Constanza, and I think Liz Lemon is a wonderful character as well. I'm also a HUGE fan of the Wonder Years, particularly of Fred Savage's character Kevin and his father(that man's name escapes me.)


  3. Thanks for the shout-out!

    Oh wow, fun post. I have too many TV characters I love. To name a few – Captains Picard and Janeway from Star Trek, Doctor Cox from Scrubs, Cartman and Randy on South Park, Lorelei from Gilmore Girls, George from Seinfeld (with ya on that one!), Soooo many!


  4. I loved Ted Baxter. And Sue Ann Nivens. I love broadly painted characters, flawed characters, whether they're mine or someone else's. It certainly is more interesting filling your fiction with characters who have quirks than characters who are perfect.


  5. Oh, I LOVED Mayor Richard Wilkins III! I'm right there with you on Buffy being the best show ever (just ask my husband, who has had to sit through many, MANY repeated screenings from my DVD collection)! So great to see others who appreciate The Mayor. In my opinion, he would be followed closely by Andrew (Tom Lenk).


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