by Ryan Lanz
The television show Friends was immensely popular. It won 62 Primetime Emmy Awards. According to the Nielsen ratings, it was within the top 5 shows for 9 solid years. Personally, I loved it. Its message said that with the right friends, we can weather anything that life throws at us.
But why was this show so popular? It wasn’t by chance that it became a television giant. Today we’re going to comb through the reasons why I feel the show was successful and how you can use these methods to improve your writing.
Ever since I started dissecting television series, I’ve noticed that a good indication of success are stark flavors for each character. More good examples of this are: The Office, South Park, Seinfeld, Happy Days, The Addams Family, Family Guy, Cheers, The Simpsons, Lost, Arrested Development, That 70’s Show, and Parks and Recreation. Of course, these shows couldn’t have made it without quality plots, but in my opinion these shows reflect ensemble casts that carve out a “niche” for each person. In the example of Friends, I feel that each character of the main six is a near night-and-day difference from each other.
To give a counter example, consider the shows Step by Step, Boy Meets World, and Full House. They’re all great shows, but many of the main cast feels a bit…similar to me. Sure, there were some individuals that stood out, such as quirky Uncle Joey or Cody Lambert, but other than the very few, there weren’t many different tastes.
Of course, this all relates to your writing. While developing your characters, think about how you can make them different. Tidbits like phobias, passions, interests, skills, dreams, and ambitions are all things that can bring about contrasting flavors.
If you can think of more shows that show off unique character flavors, let us know in the comments below.
Have you ever written characters so rich in detail that the conflict naturally just…happened? I feel this came about a lot in the show Friends. Each character had such a clearly defined belief system and opinion, that when you insert something new into their world, the conflict practically writes itself. For example, we already knew that Monica is obsessed with cleanliness, while Phoebe is a free spirit. In the episode where they move in together…we knew they were in for a rough patch. Phoebe only wants furniture that “has a story,” and Monica wants new, fashionable pieces, so their personal views clash in a dramatic (yet entertaining) way.
Another example is the episode where Chandler’s snarky personality conflicts with Rachel’s desperation to maintain her job when Chandler wants to stop dating her boss after she set the two of them up. We already knew for entire seasons what Chandler’s sort of reasoning would be in that situation, and we also knew for at least a half-season how badly Rachel wanted to get into the fashion industry and how stubborn she can be.
Organic Problems To Solve
Even though some of the issues are a bit out-there, such as a run-away Macy’s Day Parade inflatable, or being locked in an ATM vestibule with a super model, but I personally have never watched an episode that threw me out of the realm of belief. Part of it is because they’re a wacky bunch anyway, so of course wacky things happen to them, but most of it is because of the character reactions. Even when something crazy would happen, their reaction to it was so organic that I never questioned its happening.
Finally, each character felt human. The writers skillfully built flaws and failures into each character. Here are some examples:
- Ross was divorced several times
- Rachel had to learn how to be independent when she left Barry at the altar and had to come to grips with her pampered mentality
- Joey faced innumerable rejections with his acting career (and also was left with the daunting task of a failed spin-off)
- Phoebe had to deal with her troubled past and family issues
- Chandler wrestles with job fulfillment and has no luck with love (Janice’s laugh still haunts me) until Monica
- Monica dealt with a demeaning wig-wearing job while searching for the perfect culinary position and struggled in her romantic relationships with Pete and more notably Richard
You may not be all that much of a fan of the show, but there are still things to glean and implement into your own writing. Your plot may take longer than 21 minutes to resolve, but we can still see a bread-crumb trail that led this series to such huge success.
Ryan Lanz is an avid blogger and author of The Idea Factory: 1,000 Story Ideas and Writing Prompts to Find Your Next Bestseller. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.