Get out your cell phone and scroll through the contacts until you come to a name that provokes a reaction inside of you. Joy, rage, confusion, fascination, embarrassment, fear, frustration, infatuation, anything.
Ask yourself why that person’s name caused that reaction in you. Don’t try to make it an accurate answer, make it your honest, personal answer. Make it a thousand overlapping micro-answers. Don’t find categorical terminology for any of it, just dump the marbles of emotional memory all over the floor, flood the room with them. You were infatuated with Rebecca because she wore Chuck Taylors and played bass and tasted like cigarettes.
Now play with the marbles. Experiment with eliminating them, cross referencing them…didn’t Tracy also taste like cigarettes, and didn’t you hate that about her? What if Rebecca had tasted like Scope, would you have been less in love with her…?
Sooner or later - and fight it for as long as you can, but let it happen when it can’t be fought anymore - some overall categorical conclusion about this person is going to fuse most of the marbles. Let it be elegantly and ambiguously simple. One word, the simplest word possible, it only has to mean something to you and you don’t even have to be sure of what it means. Rebecca was dirty.
Let that be her nucleus and let any leftover, seemingly contradictory marbles orbit the clump, like electrons, but don’t let them mean as much as the nucleus.
Put your Rebecca atom, with her three marble dirty nucleus and her one vegan electron, aside, and go back to your phone.
Make a bunch of atoms this way. Some of them might end up fusing into molecules (if you’re living right, Rebecca’s not the only dirty woman in your phone). Some will remain independent and inert. All of them will be simple characters with real, human growth potential.
Write your pilot before you know everything about these people. Let the story establish little pieces of them, don’t fill your script with facts about fictional strangers, fill your script with things happening to fictional strangers. Bring the atoms into collision and let your audience get glimpses of their nuclei as they repulse, neutralize and bond with each other. If you are capable of knowing exactly who these people are by the end of your pilot, you are probably writing a bad TV show. The good news being, I predict much success for you.
But if your goal is to create a TV character with depth, it’s the same as if your goal were to create a tree with height: you’ll have to be patient and surrender a lion’s share of your control. God doesn’t make a tree with hammer and nails. He makes a seed. Likewise, actors and audiences and time are the things that are going to give your characters depth, the best you can do as the writer of a pilot is provide the reader with evidence of that potential.
If you scroll back through this tumblr, I think I answered a similar question about character once, and talked at great length about my belief that every character should have something about them that will never change. That might be a helpful thing to read, too. And if it’s not helpful, hey, listen, YOUR REFUND IS IN THE MAIL, HOW DARE YOU. WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE QUESTIONING ALL THIS FREE INFORMATION ON CREATIVITY?! Sorry I snapped at you. Good luck.
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