Write Stuff: Strong Characters

Or: How I Learned to Love Writing a Spec Script

Chet Haase
3 min readJun 6, 2024

I learned two important lessons from writing a spec script: (1) How to actually write a spec script, from scratch, and (2) Always have strong characters.

Given how difficult it was for me to figure out interesting plots (especially for the episodic series I chose (Only Murders in the Building), for which I had to shoehorn a fake episode into the middle of an unsuspecting mystery plot) and then compelling storylines which could be interwoven within that episode, I expected the actual script writing to be similarly complex. I respect the show I chose (including the writing) immensely, so how could I possibly attempt to offer something that could possibly compare to the original?

But it turns out that one of the other great things about Only Murders (and other good shows) is that all of the characters—including the minor ones—have their own distinct voices that help when writing their dialog. Charles is blissfully ignorant of the details of life and of how he comes across. Oliver is humorously catty and dramatic. Mabel is more of a straight (if sarcastic) character, but teasing (and supportive) of her old friends. And, for my spec episode, Maxine the critic is very articulate, intellectual, and, uh, critical.

All of this meant that when I sat down to write the dialog for a particular scene, it just… flowed. I could hear in my mind how these characters would talk, the kinds of things they would say, and how they would interact with each other. Then I just had to type it out, as they dictated it to me.

Of course it wasn’t quite that straightforward — I still needed to come up with original jokes and the specifics of what they actually said. But how they said it was almost a given because the show (the creators, writers, actors, directors, and everyone else who contributed to the final result) did such a brilliant job of painting how each of the characters would say these kinds of things.

In one scene in my script, Mabel was talking with Charles. She made a funny side reference, an observational-humor bit that I thought would land. Something was not quite right about it, but I liked the actual joke. When we did a table read with my workshop group, someone noted that that bit in particular stuck out, awkwardly. They noticed the same thing as I did, but hadn’t wanted to admit: it just didn’t sound like Mabel’s voice. Because it wasn’t Mabel’s voice — it was mine. And while I love my jokes as much as anybody (okay: more than anybody), my script needs to be about my characters, not about me. So I axed the joke and let Mabel be Mabel, not Chet.

Aside: Deleting dialog and other bits of your writing you love is called “killing your darlings.” Apparently it’s something writers have to get used to. Oh, those poor darlings.

There was a huge lesson for me in this process that went way beyond this or any spec script. The reason that writing the spec script (or at least the dialog portion of it) was easy and fun for me was that the characters were so strong that they basically wrote their own dialog. This became a lesson for all of my writing — in my other scripts and beyond. And in my improv work, too. The stronger the characters I create, the easier it is to figure out what they would say and do, and how they would react, in any given situation.

Strong characters also fill stories with diverse personalities, instead of just variations of the author. And while I’m okay with more me, maybe my audience would rather hear occasionally from someone else.

Continue reading the next installment of Write Stuff: Characters in Sketch & Improv.



Chet Haase

Past: Android development Present: Student, comedy writer Future: ???