Before I recently cancelled my television service, one of my delights was watching the British comedies which air on public television. My stand-out favorite has always been Are You Being Served? Although the series has not aired on PBS in some time, episodes, documentaries, and interviews can be found on the modern miracle known as YouTube.
And, for a writer, that’s a good thing. AYBS has a lot to teach, particularly how to create memorable and enduring characters.
AYBS, which ran in the UK from 1972-85, produced only 69 episodes. But they have been repeated ever since and the series became popular in other countries—the U.S., Canada, Australia, and even non-English speaking countries such as Israel. Not bad for a sitcom which follows the antics of a sales staff in an old fashioned department store and got much of its humor from innuendo and double entendres.
But, even more importantly, the show owed its longevity to the characters. Who could forget Mr. Humphries, the charming, is-he-gay-or-isn’t-he? sales assistant in men’s wear? Or Mrs. Slocombe, the overbearing head of the ladies department whose hair changes color every week? Or Captain Peacock, the autocratic floorwalker whose only job is to direct customers to the appropriate department? (In the U.S., he would be the equivalent of a Wal-Mart greeter.)
But what made these characters so special? And what can you learn about creating your own unforgettable characters?
Here are three tips:
1. Plot is not as important as character.
Jeremy Lloyd, who co-created and wrote the series (with David Croft), has said in interviews that the plots weren’t especially important. What mattered was the characters—particularly the conflict generated by any two characters:
- When the ladies’ department moves to the same floor as the men’s department, territorial sparks fly between Mrs. Slocombe and Mr. Grainger, the fussy head of men’s wear.
- Captain Peacock remains polite and deferential toward his boss, store manager Mr. Rumbold, but one senses his seething resentment every time Rumbold undermines his authority.
- When the sales junior, Mr. Lucas, tries to chat up sexy Miss Brahms in the ladies department, she lashes out at him with her Cockney accent because she knows he's chased other women.
- Mr. Humphries, who generally gets along with everyone, still bristles when someone innocently mentions terms such as "queen" or "fairy."
- The store's maintenance workers, Mr. Mash and Mr. Harmon, continually defy orders that they stay off of the sales floor during shopping hours—and they always find ways to get around the rules.
As the above examples illustrate, the plots often came from the characters—or more specifically from one character’s conflict with another character.
But if conflict were all AYBS had to offer, the characters would not be terribly memorable or even likeable.
2. Create a sense of family among the characters.
AYBS created a dysfunctional family, to be sure, but a family nonetheless. Everyone knows an authoritative father figure such as Captain Peacock or a mother figure such as Mrs. Slocombe, who never quite understands how her words come across, particularly when she mentions her cat.
In short, these characters are memorable because they are familiar to most viewers. Their familiarity makes them loveable in spite of (or because of) their flaws.
Most long-running TV series—from M*A*S*H to Star Trek—generate a sense of family among the characters, who put up with each others’ idiosyncrasies in the way only a family can.
3. Write what you know.
The verisimilitude of AYBS came from Lloyd, who spent three years working at a department store similar to the fictional Grace Brothers on the series. Lloyd drew his characters from people he interacted with. Though he exaggerated their qualities, those qualities were based on truth.
More, Lloyd observed the strict pecking order and tricks of the trade (such as "kneeing" a jacket) that kept AYBS grounded in reality.
Whether you are writing a comedy or any other kind of story, creating memorable characters is a must. Drawing characters from real life, emphasizing character conflicts over plot, and creating a sense of family are three ways to make sure your readers never forget your characters.
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