What the 'Friends' Pilot Script Can Teach You About Writing Great Characters
The Friends pilot does an excellent job with using character archetypes to create a show that felt fresh and exciting. What can we learn?
When the Friends script was first written, it was impossible to know it would be a phenomenon. It was picked up by Warner Bros. TV with low-ish expectations. But that pilot lit the spark on one of the biggest TV shows of all time, with Friends airing from 1994 to 2003. The show is still one of the biggest international hits, currently the No. 1 show (syndicated) globally in most markets.
So how did Friends find so much success? It all comes down to the characters.
While most of the storylines found voices in the room, the show was pitched and sold because of the characters who inhabited the world and the potential networks saw in the hijinks that would ensure.
Let's look at the Friends characters from the pilot script and talk about how riffs on popular archetypes made them come alive.
How the Pilot Script Capitalizes on Character Archetypes?
On the first pages of the pilot, we get this excellent character breakdown of the people who would inhabit Central Perk for the next decade. These are great descriptions of these people. They give studio execs something to hold onto and to see an actor or actress embody.
But these are not only original characters, they're also based on historical character archetypes, and given twists to make them feel current and fresh.
Before we get into their individual characters, let's refresh our memories with our archetypes sheet. These are the classic definitions. they're rigid, but a great writer knows they can mash these up, tweak where needed, and create incredible and unique voices out of these general columns.
While these are the headstones, let's see how Friends riffs on these kind of stale stereotypes to really amp up the characters in the pilot.
The Archetypes in Friends
Monica - the Warrior
Monica is clearly the strongest willed person on the series. she has everything anyone would want in the world. And she worked to get it. but her central flaw is where we get this riff on the archetypes. She is so bad at dating, at taking charge in that aspect, that Monica needs her friends to help balance her out.
This is an intriguing look at the archetype, because it sets forward her main theme for the show. She opens her own restaurant. Pushes forward in her career. And dates all the losers, old guys, and alcoholics until she settles for Chandler.
What's nice is through their romance he makes her into the best version of the Warrior.
Rachel - the Child
In the pilot, Rachel runs from her coddled lifestyle and boring marriage to try to make in on her own. The entire series is shaped around her trying to break free of this archetype one season at a time. Building from someone who is immediately trying to break the mold is great because she's always going to have conflict moving forward.
Life can be hard for someone who used to live on easy street.
But these kinds of conflicts help an executive see how the show has legs. Rachel will always breed drama, and comedies need dramas to keep people laughing.
Phoebe - the Creator
Phoebe is the wild card here.
It would be easy to say she's only the comic relief. but since she's not aware how funny she is, it's hard to make her the joker. Instead, the show lets us in on Phoebe's genius via her creativity. Since this is a comedy, she can't be too much of an inaccessible genius. Instead, we bolster her with a ton of empathy, playing her against type.
Instead of sacrificing everything to be at the top, Phoebe sacrifices everything to stay in the middle. Pursuing art and life instead of money. In fact, Phoebe also functions as the lover for all the friends in Friends. Not sexually, but as the one who will always listen and let you vent.
Therefore, she fits in any situation and can be anyone's foil.
Ross - the Magician
Ross is hard to label because he's the worst. Kidding... kinda.
Ross is the most educated, but all that knowledge gives him nothing when it comes to social skills. Still, his hubris is always his downfall. Whether pushing the "We were on a break" story or just trying to be the guy who owns every situation, he constantly falls on his face.
What's funny is, no matter how much success Ross has, he's always undercut. It's like he desperately wants to be the Magician archetype but the world won't let him. that humanizes him in our eyes.
Joey - the Joker
Joey is the easiest Friend to categorize. While he plays the "mimbo" quite well, he is mostly concerned with everyone being happy and having a good time. And chicken parm sandwiches. Still, Joey wants more, and that's what sets him apart from other characters.
He has the drive of the Creator. Joey wants to be a great actor. He actually works hard at it. And when he achieves some success, he does alienate his friends.
Chandler - the Orphan
I laughed writing this one because while I find Chandler to be the funniest friend, I do think his constant complaints about his absentee parents makes me love that he's the orphan. While I don't know about him actually commanding respect, I do know he is driven by the constant need to be liked.
while he's not known for it, I also think Chandler comes through as the lover.
As I mentioned in the Monica storyline, I find their relationship to be the healthiest on the show. Both people really bring out the best in one another. When Monica wants a wedding, Chandler finds the money to pay for it, when he's afraid of having a family she helps him find his courage.
Together, their loving and lover status works back and forth.
Plus, which of the Friends has the others' backs more than Chandler?
It feels like he's always bailing people out. Just ask Joey's wallet!
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