I think the best television characters want something they can never have — and spend every episode pursuing it. What makes them compelling is that they are under siege, in some way, by the world around them, and unable to secure that version of their life that they continually fantasize about.
The Last Man on Earth was my favorite new comedy last season, and it’s really a primer on this. Especially in the first few episodes, where it focuses constantly on the emotional perspective of Will Forte’s character. That’s unusual, in that most episodes of most series have multiple stories, each with their own main character. Eventually other people do “get stories” on The Last Man on Earth, but initially, it’s all about what Forte wants, and what’s in the way.
(SPOILER ALERT from here on out.)
First, he just wants to not be the last man on earth. Then, he meets Kristen Schaal’s character and finds her aggravating, but marries her, because he thinks she’s the only woman on earth (and the only other person besides him), and she insists on it.
Then, January Jones shows up. And from that point onward, the thing he wants but can’t have — is her. And he pursues this desire constantly, which leads to complications and growing conflicts. This is what always happens in the best stories — the main character actively pursues a desire that’s important to them, that the audience can identify with, and it just gets worse as they do that. Problems build upon problems. At the end of an episode, there is some immediate resolution to that week’s crisis, but the ongoing difficulty of “wanting something you can never have” will continue.
For Forte’s character, that ultimately consists of being a put-upon, beta outcast who can’t get the women he wants, the power he wants, the respect he wants. And for most television characters, these are the things it usually comes down to. They want respect in the world, they want some version of power, and they often want other people who are out of reach. In terms of comedies, whether it’s Liz Lemon, Frasier Crane, Michael Scott, Kenny Powers, or Carrie Bradshaw, some variation on these kinds of needs obsesses them and lead to stories every week. And they often make unwise decisions in pursuit of people or situations that they think will quench their desires, and give them a taste of what they want. But they never really do — not in a lasting way. They will always end up basically where they started, with the same fundamental issues. Which is what the show is really about.
TV series are more about characters and their unmet needs than beginning TV writers usually realize. While it’s true that some shows also have murders to solve, patients to heal, cases to argue, or zombies to kill, most dramas, like all comedies, grab the audience emotionally by means of relatable characters who entertainingly pursue what they think will make their lives better, and/or grapple what seems to be making their lives worse. The audience’s engagement in the show is all about whether they care about these characters and are entertained by them — meaning the trials and tribulations of their personal lives (as opposed to, say, their workplace challenges, which usually aren’t that compelling on their own, unless they have jobs like cop, doctor, lawyer or starship captain).
TV stories are generally tied to a specific personal difficulty that is inherent in a particular character’s life circumstances on the show, which they can never fully solve. That’s true whether there’s only a small handful of characters who get stories, or closer to twenty (like on Downton Abbey). Whatever that situation is, it never fully gets better. And usually it has to do with how the world (and specifically other people) treats them.
Some dramas up the problems and stakes to life-and-death, like Breaking Bad, but still we’re mostly focused on a character who can’t get what he wants, in terms of his place in the world and his life circumstances. This is especially true if you think of the first season — which is a good thing to do when analyzing successful series as models for your own. He’s a very relatable character in a problematic situation that will never get better. All he can do is tread water and try to avert crises each week. But his situation is rife with conflict and difficulties that will never fully go away. And that, really, is the show. You have one or more relatable characters (and Breaking Bad, like most shows, has more than one), you have an ongoing problematic situation filled with challenges, and you have a desire for a better sort of life that each character grapples with, in ways the audience finds entertaining (i.e. fun to watch).
It helps to find that one central thing that each important character is most haunted and challenged by — one way in which they don’t have the life they want and never will. Though on the surface this might seem more like just a desire, it usually connects to some universal human need . Maybe there are better, healthier ways for them to try to meet this need than the ones they are pursuing, but it all springs from a relatable place, for the audience. Usually it connects to love, belonging, respect, freedom, and/or the ability to succeed in one’s chosen best life.
Then, there should be an opportunity in every episode for them to try to get that life, at least in some small measure — or some way in which this open wound of theirs is being poked at, that they feel they must confront. In the end of the episode, they might resolve the immediate crisis, but they won’t really get their overall desire met, or the series would be over. As on Sex and the City, where each of four women wanted the ideal relationship with a man, and every week, they each got a story focused on how they don’t have that. Until the series finale, when they finally got happy endings. (That is, until the first movie, which needed to upset the apple cart all over again.)
Television characters are generally not happy, and not successful — not at what they really want to be successful at. They may have moments of satisfaction and resolution, but mostly they suffer and struggle. And they are consistently focused on how life is not giving them what they want, in some specific area that obsesses them. And that’s what we writers need to be focused on, as well.
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads. And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.