Do you ever watch a pilot and have an experience of the main character that goes something like “I guess I like or empathize with them, but I don’t really care about what happens to them?” There are multitudinous factors that could possibly contribute to this, of course, but a good rule of thumb if you find this happening to you is to see if you can articulate the main character’s goal and drive. Chances are, if their quest in the pilot episode doesn’t make you want to come back next week, it’s because the relationship between their goal and their drive wasn’t strong enough to hook you.
When writing a pilot, there are a lot of working parts to consider: not the least of which is your main character’s goal. It has to be strong enough to not only carry them through the end of the pilot, but also give your series credible legs. That’s a tricky thing to pull off in 60 pages or less. On top of that, most great pilots are ones that understand the necessary symbiosis that has to exist between your main character’s goal and their drive. Let’s stop for a minute and break down a few classic examples.
In the Breaking Bad pilot, Vince Gilligan does a great job of setting up a clear goal and drive for Walter White that fuel one another in a way that gives the whole pilot that extra oomph. When we meet Walt, we think he’s at his low point — he’s 50 years old, just lost his remedial second job, which he needs to care for his darling wife and special-needs son. Then Walt finds out he’s got terminal cancer and has 2 years to live. So within the first 105 pages, Gilligan’s clearly set up Walt’s goal — make sure his family is taken care of before he dies — as well as his drive, punctuated by the ticking clock Walt gets from the doctor. He has 2 years, at best, of a public school teacher’s salary to make sure his wife and son will be ok after he dies. This, as any viewer with a basic knowledge of the post-2008 American economy knows, is mathematically impossible. So when Walt decides to go to the extreme measure of cooking meth, we are more than ready to jump on his train, because Gilligan wrote him into a clear, tight, very empathetic corner that we know there’s no way he can get out of.
In GLOW, creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch do an artful job of setting up Ruth’s rock-bottom life in the pilot. A painstakingly trained actress who craves the opportunity to have her craft taken seriously, like her more successful best friend Debbie, Ruth’s settled for next-best versions of every aspect of her life, right down to her relationship — which is really an affair with Debbie’s husband Mark. Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling provides Ruth with the opportunity to do more than just sell toothpaste and a new social circle when she arguably needs one the most. So when Ruth auditions and we find out at first she didn’t make the league, damned to get back on the 10 and go back to her decidedly mediocre life, it feels devastating to the audience — even if it’s not as visceral of an impact as finding out you have 2 years to live, or finding out you’re eternally doomed.
This is Us uses heavier, more emotional storylines to establish Jack and Rebecca’s stakes: they go into the hospital expecting 3 babies and leave the delivery room with 2. With a house full of triplet goods at home and a nascent understanding of postpartum depression back in the 1970s, Jack and Rebecca are believably driven to unusual lengths to repair their broken family — hence bringing home Randall.
Another thing all these pilots have in common is a good understanding of the relationship between goal and drive. Your main character’s goal should always make them actively drive the story forward, instead of moving through your pilot reacting to what’s happening to them. In Breaking Bad, for instance, Walt’s goal motivates him to blackmail Jesse into helping him cook meth and steal supplies from his school’s chemistry lab: actions that actively raise the stakes and dig Walt deeper into this exciting hole. In GLOW, Ruth is at such a low, personally and professionally, that when she finally does scratch and claw (literally) her way onto the show, she has to take the job — even if it means living in a motel with Debbie for weeks right after their emotional confrontation about Ruth and Mark’s affair.
Are you sensing a pattern here? An easy hack to setting up a strong relationship between goal and drive for your main character is to put them between a rock and a hard place: the bigger the rock and the harder the hard place, the better. Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Your main character’s goal and drive also work together in special ways to create your storyline arcs, act-outs, and set piece moments — all of which we cover in our Televisionary Writers Workshop (offered both in-person and online). But a good rule of thumb, if you’re ever reading or watching a pilot and finding it hard to attach to the main character, is look at the triangular relationship between goal, drive, and stakes. Does each feed the other? Do they help your main character drive the action, instead of moving through the pilot reacting to it? Are you putting your main character between the biggest rock and hardest hard place you could possibly think of? Remember, with over 500 scripted shows on the air every season, getting audience members to come back for episode 2 is harder than ever. But even with how flooded the market is, audiences have shown they’ll follow a character worth rooting for. And while charismatic acting, strong directing, and a great concept all factor heavily into that, where it all starts, if you really boil it down, is with a goal and drive that are symbiotic, relatable, and impossible to change the channel on.