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Quackcast 654 - tropes vs character growth

Ozoneocean at 12:00AM, Sept. 26, 2023

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Today we're chatting about characters who're mainly based on tropes VS those that grow. You see this difference quite clearly in a lot of British comedy VS American comedy where characters are set up in certain ways, e.g. the nerd, the sassy one, the mature one etc- in British stuff they tend to revert to type, which is their most important trait, while in American stuff they tend to change and grow based on interactions and experiences. There are MANY exceptions though and one way isn't inherently better than the other.

There seems to be a few reasons for that: a huge established history of it in Britain and the BBC being a massively influential engine of creation that people emulate without even thinking, but mainly I think it's because most British stuff always used to have a single writer or a pair of writers working on something at a time and often changing them episode to episode, while American stuff often tends to be written by team. This means there's more continuity on American projects because when part of the team leaves they're replaced by others who join the existing team, while with British stuff you'll often have a full replacement. This means that with the single writer approach it's much easier to simply rely on tropes rather than keep track of what all the previous people who worked on it were thinking, but when you have a team people will remember from episode to episode so it's easier to build on characters and change them.

The original British Office Vs the American adaptation is a good illustration of the tendency of tropes VS change. Both sets of characters were based on certain tropes but over the course of the 2 seasons and the special episodes the characters in the original didn't really change or grow at all (Gareth is still a knob, David Brent never changes from being a sad wanker, Tim always thinks he's better than everyone despite hating himself), while as soon as the US episodes stopped directly copying the originals the characters began to grow (way before it went off into its multi season run). The British version had the same two writers, but they were following the popular British style. Both versions are great in their own very different ways and despite being trope based the British version is more serious and realistic, while the growing characters of the US version are cartoony and stylised.

There are other factors though and a lot of exceptions - show-runners can make sure things go in certain ways, The Simpsons have been going for a million years with many different writers and barely change, and things made with the same one or two writers episode to episode can still change and grow because you have creative continuity. Then you have creators who simply force characters to reset and revert to type regardless of the growth and experiences they've had,which is a terrible betrayal of the audience, but that's how bad writers roll. Related to that is the opposite version; where characters score unearned growth that just comes out of nowhere, which is another betrayal of the audience.

Do your characters grow and change or are they informed by the way they were originally setup? Which style do you prefer?

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Ozoneocean at 7:40PM, Sept. 27, 2023

I haven't seen any of those XD

InkyMoondrop at 7:51PM, Sept. 26, 2023

Yeah, no it's understandable. But character growth is a lot easier to pull off in series which aren't episodic by nature and are dramedies. Like the US Shameless (although after a good number of seasons you notice how the mains just keep reverting, because it needs them to behave despicably in order for it to be funny) or the UK version of Skins (the first two seasons of Skins were golden). I'm gonna say, that the 2nd season did rush a few character developments and put it them in like an episode or two, it didn't sit well with the established pacing, but it was good stuff.

Ozoneocean at 7:38PM, Sept. 26, 2023

@InkyMoondrop - The thing doesn't need to run over multiple seasons to show character growth. That can happen in a single season or even a single episode. Part of the reason it happens with American shows is the way they're renewed- the first season might all be written, it gets broadcast and then they change stuff up in order to get renewed for a second season- taking direction form network execs... and that process is repeated every time they get renewed. to us watching it comes of as just a part of character growth XD. I'm not saying that's a cause, just one of the factors.

Ozoneocean at 7:32PM, Sept. 26, 2023

@Gunwallce- Yeah I mentioned The Simpsons as an exception and factors like show-runners keeping things on track in certain ways. I think that's what happened with Friends. When a character returns to their simple core settings despite all the growth that is a betrayal of the audience. It's a factor in all styles of story, not just sitcoms.

Ozoneocean at 7:28PM, Sept. 26, 2023

@Paul - yes I've seen some of the German version, it's pretty highly regarded as one of The Office derivatives! You're right that evolving characters too much can lose what makes them compelling.

Ozoneocean at 7:24PM, Sept. 26, 2023

@J_Scarbrough - the fake documentary style was created by the British Office because the whole show was a sort of a direct parody of the BBC and ITV fly on the wall procedural documentaries that were popular in Britain in the late 90s (there were so many in exactly the format but for real and not comedies). In the US Arrested Development was the style-setter for the trend actually! XD And yeah, it became popular (parks and Rec etc) but without the context that the original British version had it was pretty meaningless. Even in Arrested Development where it still sort of meant something it didn't have as much relevance.

InkyMoondrop at 7:03PM, Sept. 26, 2023

Oh, and of course my characters develop over time, a lot. Not everyone, some minor antagonists or villains for example aren't given a lot of opportunities to. But I'm at the point where I want to tell a story about most's individual journey through life or a period of life. And my next chapter (that I'll finish in a month or so and that's about 2x longer than my average) is taking my already established characters and in minor and major ways develops them further. About 12-15 of them in their own way. Making all this coherent was probably my biggest challenge so far.

InkyMoondrop at 6:58PM, Sept. 26, 2023

Heheh. Yeah, UK shows like The Office don't have a lot of seasons and episodes. I guess they could get some character development in it if they would've tried, but I'm guessing you don't really know if there'd be a 2nd season at all and even if there is, very few of Gervais's projects lived to see a 3rd season. That and of course how sitcoms work because they rely on a formula, tropes, etc. Changing that is ultra risky. Which is why what counts as character development in most sitcoms over the span of 8-10 years, even the successful ones are: getting a relationship or getting married. I really liked Friends, but many more recent ones you just know become repetitive after 4-5 seasons and you don't really care for the same jokes all over again anymore. A great exception was The Good Place. That is a comedy series all about character development. It's funny and original. Some of the seasons and episodes aren't superb, but at least it's getting somewhere.

Gunwallace at 4:25PM, Sept. 26, 2023

In many US sitcoms, however, the change over time is that the character becomes more and more a core set of exaggerated traits. Joey from friends started with some street smarts, but in later seasons he's just completely stupid. Homer Simpson is similar. In the early seasons you can see why Marge stays with him. He is a loving and caring guy underneath it all. By season 12 it's more like the only reason she's there is Stockholm syndrome. It's not character growth, it's character devolution. Also US series tend to have so many more episodes than the UK ones, so change, however unintended, creeps in. To quote the Simpsons about the sitcom 'Do Shut Up': "Not hard to see why it's England's longest running series, and today we're showing all seven episodes."

PaulEberhardt at 10:13AM, Sept. 26, 2023

Another factor may be that competing German comedy series at that time tended to be derivative and to prefer stale, time-tried below-the-belt gags to anything unsafe. I remember it slightly bothered me to see that the one glimpse of hope was, of all things, a parody on all this scripted reality stuff that came up back then. It can't be much later that I more or less quit watching TV altogether, so I'm not really an authority on the subject, but I think that you can evolve an evolving cast to death as much as you can pass the point with a trope-based cast in a fixed setting where you just run out of scope for new plots, and that too many TV producers are too willing to risk that for some more ad revenue. However, you can broaden this scope for new plots by slowly evolving the setting instead. This is especially appealing for comics, since in contrast to TV productions it costs nothing to do so. Not that you can't evolve that to death, of course.

PaulEberhardt at 9:53AM, Sept. 26, 2023

I've never given this difference between British and American series much thought, but now you mention it, it's very true and literally staring you in the eye. Blimey! 😉 The (unauthorized!) German adaptation, called "Stromberg", certainly fits into this pattern. All the episodes were largely written by the same guy and the characters stay firmly anchored in their defining tropes. I found it a bit too repetitive, truth be told, and unsurprisingly it lead to the actor who played David Brent's analogue being typecast - at least everyone and their dog still connect him with that role. Nevertheless, it was a huge success and got excellent critiques that disagree with me and praise it for its intelligent humour that looks deep into the abysses that ordinary people hide under their public facades. Really! Guess that must be mostly because they did cast intelligent people who are excellent at comedy acting and gave them some leeway.

J_Scarbrough at 8:18AM, Sept. 26, 2023

I never understood the appeal of THE OFFICE. It was such a bland, dull, droll, and boring show, and then it became a trendsetter in that all single-camera "sitcoms" afterwards had to produced in the mockumentary format . . . which works for, say, Christopher Guest movies, but not so much weekly TV series where you need to be able to invest in the characters and their arcs, but to constantly have the story interrupted by the characters' own commentary takes you out of that.

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