Television writing is all about sharing. Unlike a novel, where one author is responsible for every word, a television series passes through the hands of many authors. A series may even change at the highest level of authorship, potentially making an entirely new story within the same creative work.
I’ve spent a long time playing with other people’s toys. I wrote my first fanfiction on my thirteenth birthday; after I was finished with fanfic, I moved on to MZPtv, where I worked as a staff writer for other writers on the site. I spent five years rising in the ranks of Slayer Academy, which ultimately was a hybrid of fanfiction (in that it took place in a world created by Joss Whedon) and original work (in that every significant character was an original creation by MZPtv writers). It’s exciting, taking a character from A to B over the course of five years.
Five years. 110 hour-long scripts, plus a smattering of webisodes (short episodes). With a bunch of characters who had shown real, organic growth, and by the end of the series were completely different, yet recognisable, people. It was an amazing experience, and it wasn’t dulled a bit by the fact that I hadn’t created any of the characters I’d spent so long developing to their final story. This wasn’t the only time I got to help develop and expand characters, but it was the most significant.
Working with someone else’s characters is a careful negotiation, being confident that your ideas are good without becoming overbearing or overattached. Getting possessive is unprofessional, and blinds you to collaboration with the group. The same when you create a minor character and become controlling over how that character is used, or lashing out when it is decided that character should be killed off or written out. And yet, there’s a good chance you’ll do so anyway. That’s what loving a character, and being invested in them, is about, and it takes some time to steel yourself against your instincts to protect them.
If you’re great at writing them, maybe the showrunner will toss you their big episodes. In the case of one particular Slayer Academy castmate, I got the chance to write two episodes that explored her inner demons in some fun ways, because I had a strong connection to her.
And if you’re really lucky, you’ll create a cast that someone else will write for, and you’ll get the pleasure of seeing someone else absolutely nail the voices of your characters. It’s surprisingly powerful, the moment you see that someone else has connected so much with a character you wrote that they can so easily slip into that character’s skin. I have this feeling that sharing your characters then becomes addictive, as long as you stay in control.