Character is important no matter what the medium of storytelling, but for television it is paramount. Creators need to build a world where you can follow characters forever—or at least for as many seasons as the fans, and network, will allow. In a landscape where platforms like Netflix start to limit series to three stories, TVLand’s Younger is on to season six and creator Darren Star has no intention of stopping.
Younger stars Sutton Foster as Liza Miller, a single mother in her late thirties who decides to take the chance to reboot her career and her love life as a 26-year old. Set in the world of publishing, the series focuses on dynamic female friendships featuring characters played by industry veterans Hilary Duff, Miriam Shor, Debi Mazar and Peter Hermann, amongst others.
The first episode of season six of this New York-centric series premiered at Tribeca Festival to an enthusiastic New York audience. Younger is filled with characters people can fall in love with. You normally see fan conversation on Twitter and blogs, maybe amongst friends, but to watch a show with true fans was giddying. In a room of hundreds, the audience clapped and cheered as each character hit the screen. It was a level of excitement I’ve only seen at superhero movies.
As season six doesn’t premiere until June 12, I’ll make this spoiler free, but here are four takeaways to consider when you’re thinking about character when writing for TV.
1) Create relatable characters with real adult emotions
Writers must write their characters as human beings and human beings are complicated. So are relationships. Though there is this element of #teamcharles (Peter Hermann) verses #teamjosh (Nico Tortorella) as most shows can’t resist the love triangle, it’s really about the women’s relationships that viewers tune in for.
It’s inevitable that as you move through the seasons, the relationships between the characters change. They grow over time. Characters will never go back to what they were. They will morph into something different. So as a writer, you need to know your characters, but also leave room to let them grow.
Liza and Charles end season five embarking on a new relationship—one that’s out in the open. This means the rest of the characters have to find out about it. In the writer’s room, you have to consider how this new relationship and the revealing of its secret will change the way everyone interacts with each other.
Creator Darren Star commented on the shift the show has taken since season one: “It’s less about Liza’s secret and more about the challenges the secret has created. And this tangled web of relationships all these characters have with each other. So it’s not about Liza keeping the secret, it’s very much about the relationships and also the passion everybody has for work. They are in the publishing industry, which is not the most thriving of businesses right now. But these are characters that really have a passion for it and want to keep it alive and the show details the lengths they go to pursue their careers.”
2) Do not fall into the trap of stereotypes
It’s easy to fall into stereotypical gender roles that showcase the tired relationships we’re used to seeing on TV. It’s something we need to be very conscious about as we develop our own series. Are we creating characters that are real? Characters grounded in the world we’ve built? Are they reacting in ways that are unexpected and forward-thinking? The writers on Younger are doing this as they push against the relationship norms you typically see, especially for the relationships they show between women.
For instance, Diana (Miriam Shor) and Liza have grown close over the seasons of the show. This relationship is important to Diana and she trusts Liza implicitly. So if there is a moment of betrayal, it’s not because of pettiness or “you stole the boy I like,” which is what we expect to see on screen between women. It’s because Liza wasn’t honest and open with Diana.
The writer’s room also talks about competition and support a lot when developing storylines for their characters. The writers are really sensitive about the relationship between these women. They want to ensure the characters, especially the women, are really supportive of each other. Whenever the characters come into conflict, the writers are aware of what that conflict is about, and how it’s managed. At the center, there’s always friendship and love. The characters come into conflict but it’s based on their friendship being true and real. It’s not just conflict because they are relegated to being catty as “women are catty.” It never goes there.
In that same vein, Lauren (Molly Bernard) is a champion of Kelsey (Hilary Duff) rather than seeing her as the competition. The only thing that Lauren wants to see is women becoming bosses. She’s constantly pushing people ahead, and wanting them to succeed. As a character, she’s confident in herself and not intimidated by all the bad-ass women in her life. You also see this in the relationship between Liza and her roommate, Maggie (Debi Mazar). Maggie gives Liza the confidence to get out there in the morning and be the person she’s meant to be. And then Liza passes on that feeling by lifting Kelsey up.
3) Connect big moments to character motivations
Sometimes there’s a fun thing you want to do in your series – a final cliff-hanging heart-stopping moment, or a big musical number. You can do it, but it has to be motivated, and you need to build to it. Sometimes that slow build will give you a deeper reaction from your viewers and grab their attention. Think about this as you develop your pilot and plan out your season. Yes, that moment you are planning sounds exciting, but you have to take your audience with you.
For instance, at the end of season two, when Charles kisses Liza, Hermann told us the story of “a woman who was on in years, wheeling her laundry cart by me when I was on the Upper West Side. It was right after the episode aired. She stopped in front of me with her cart. WHACK. She smacked me on the shoulder: “Took you long enough.” If you do it right, people have strong feelings about your characters and live every moment with them.
4) Give opportunities for your talent to shine
Once vou cast your show, look at the additional talents your actors bring to the table. Do they have a special skill that can add to the show? These hidden opportunities can build out your characters and the world they inhabit.
Even if you are far from filming, think about the unique talent that you may want for your show. Are there things a dream lead could bring that no one else could? Build that into your character. It will help you look beyond the stereotype and build interesting people we can fall in love with.
The most exciting thing about Younger isn’t just the way it develops characters and builds relationships, but also because it’s such an incredibly positive show. I’ll leave you with Peter Hermann’s last words as they sum it up best: “To write a show that is hopeful and optimistic, and depicts female friends and relationships in general that genuinely hope without being naive, without being maudlin, is such an incredibly difficult thing to do. We live in such a cynical age and that’s a lazy default setting as an approach to life, and I think it’s so beautiful to see hope and characters hoping for each other. “
Younger season six will premier on Wednesday June 12th at 10pm on TVLand.