Characterisation Lessons In The US Office

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On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in UK“, JJ Barnes writes about the writing in The US Office and what we can learn about writing our own characters.

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Written by JJ Barnes

The US Office is one of the most successful comedy shows ever made. It ran for nine years from 2005 to 2013, clocking in at 188 episodes. Therefore, it goes to stand, that we can learn a lot from the writing. In this piece I will be focusing on the characterisation techniques used in The Office, and what we can do to replicate this effect in our own writing.

The US Office Introduces Distinct Characters

The Office has a large cast, and they’re all crammed into one small space. It would be easy for those characters to become blurred in the minds of the audience. However, from the moment the pilot begins, those personalities are distinct and clear.

The way this is done is to give you a small piece of information about each person. A trait that is completely unique to them. Michael is the annoying boss. Jim is the pining for the secretary prankster. Dwight is the weapon loving mad man. Angela is the religious prude. Stanley is the bored salesman waiting for retirement. These small pieces of information are slammed straight into you. You can easily identify each person and their personality quickly.

Of course, these characters are developed and don’t remain as one dimensional notes. But the initial introduction with a clear personality trait allows your audience to understand them immediately.

How To Replicate This Effect

The larger your cast of characters, the trickier this is. However, as The Office shows, it can be done and it can be done effectively. Pick a feature of each character, something they’re driven by or a personality quirk, and focus on it. All the characters will have a lot more going on than this one thing, but that can be explored later. Initially, give your audience a hook. Focus on something about them and let that be the establishing feature of who they are.

When your audience has got to know your characters better and can differentiate between them without effort, that’s when you’ll start to develop them.

Character Development In The US Office

Michael and Holly in The US Office on The Table Read
Michael and Holly in The US Office

The characters in The US Office all grow and change. The story of the show has a profound effect on each of them in different ways. This demonstrates the humanity in each character, and tells you that the story matters.

Michael arcs from unlovable and completely terrible into a man who finds true love in Holly and builds genuine heartfelt relationships with his coworkers. Pam grows from being too shy to look people in the eye and trapped in a loveless relationship, into a confident businesswoman with a family and loving husband. Dwight grows from a cartoonish hulk into a loving husband to Angela with real friendships. These changes are gradual, and caused by events in the story. You’re drawn in by these changes. They are still the same people, but they’re the new and improved version.

How To Replicate This Effect

Characters need to be impacted by your story. If the story doesn’t change them in any way then it suggests your story lacks impact or significance. Each time something happens to your character, imagine it leaves a mark on their soul. They are changed. Each time someone is kind to Dwight, it effects him. It might only be a little bit, but it’s there. He starts to care about Pam, he starts to love Angela. He grows to trust Jim, despite Jim’s constant and determined pranking.

Each moment of your story should shape your character just a little bit until, over time, they’re molded into the person they end your story as. They still need to be the same person, just they’ve become the best version of themselves by experiencing the events of your story.

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Character Conflict In The US Office

Good characterisation allows you to have active conflict in every scene. The US Office achieves this by making sure every single character is motivated by at least one thing in every single scene. These motivations clash with the motivations of other characters and the conflict caused is entertaining.

The Party Planning Committee on The US Office on The Table Read
The Party Planning Committee on The US Office

If Angela is running the party planning committee, she wants to be in control. She wants to organise events to a Christian moral code standard and she wants everybody to follow her instructions. Phyllis is in conflict with that motivation. She wants the party to be fun, and she wants to bring her boyfriend.

Pam’s conflict is that she both wants to appease Angela and Phyllis, but also she would like the chance to make choices. Pam doesn’t back herself enough to actually make a power grab at first, but as she grows in confidence, that motivation gets stronger. Eventually, a scene that is simply organising a party becomes extremely entertaining as all the character vie for control.

How To Replicate This Effect

Conflict is how you keep your story entertaining. To create conflict, your characters all have to want something. If nobody wants anything, then nobody is in pursuit of a goal, and the story isn’t moving. It’s flat and boring. Motivate each character in your scene and make those goals in conflict with others. Even the most boring setting for a scene can be host to an excellent and entertaining scene if the conflict is alive.

These motivations can be something simple, like wanting to organise the party. Conflict about choices in decoration or music might seem like they’re not interesting, but watching The Office will prove that wrong. You don’t need people fighting all the time. You just need people wanting to achieve something that is blocked by somebody else wanting to achieve something else.

The US Office And Character’s Hobbies

Each character in The US Office has things going on outside the direct activities of the story. These hobbies and interests shape them and make them feel more human. Sometimes they come into the story directly, but even when they don’t, they’re still there. They create rounded characters and tell you a lot about who they are.

Dwight at Schrute Farms on The US Office on The Table Read
Dwight at Schrute Farms on The US Office

Outside of the office, Dwight runs a successful beet farm. This tells you a lot about him. His farm is run with his large family, whom he spends a lot of time with, and is a lot of hard work. Not only is Dwight the top salesman at his office, but he is a successful and independently wealthy man thanks to his farm. This element of his character shows you that Dwight’s work at the office is done out of a genuine love of the place and the work, not out of need. And that he is a very driven and successful, hardworking man. You also get insight into how important family and home are to him.

These elements come in regularly into the story, and you spend more and more time at Schrute Farms as the show goes on. However, even when it’s not the focus of the story, these external passions are still active in Dwight and his goals.

How To Replicate This Effect

If your characters only exist within the confines of your plot, they won’t feel real. We all have things and people we care about outside of what we are actively doing in the moment, so your characters should to. The hobbies and interests we give our characters can shape them. You get a strong impression of who they are.

If your character loves martial arts and weaponry, such as Dwight, it gives a different character impression than if they love art, like Pam. They’re different people and their distinct personalities are demonstrated in their interests.

The hobbies you give your characters aren’t the focus of your story. They’re just part of that character and what motivates them. Even if they are mainly driven by their story goal, these interests are still part of them. If someone loves to paint, then they will still want to paint even after they save the world from alien invaders. It’s part of who they are.

Flawed But Likeable Characters In The US Office

Jim and Dwight on The US Office on The Table Read
Jim and Dwight on The US Office

One of the real strengths of The Office is that most of the characters are likeable. You root for them, even if you can’t help yourself. However, they’re also all flawed. These flaws make them human and interesting. Flaws make them real.

Jim is the romantic hero of The Office. He loves Pam in a true and deep way. You watch his love for her grow and their relationship become truly beautiful. They are best friends and you cannot help but like Jim. However, he is not a perfect person. He’s a bit of a bully. His constant taunting of Dwight goes too far at times. He doesn’t take his work seriously and when Charles Minors joins the office, he recognises it and calls it out immediately.

Angela should be an unlikeable character. Her flaws are very present. She is judgemental and rude, she is homophobic and mean. However, these flaws are all sent on an arc and she is still a likeable person. Allowing an imperfect person to still be likeable is really interesting. We can all be the worst versions of ourselves, and we can all learn from our mistakes. Angela is flawed, but she learns from her own mistakes.

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How To Replicate This Effect

If your Protagonist is perfect, they won’t feel human. Even a likeable person needs to have flaws. Jim is set up as the most likeable character but he’s a bit of a bully. Equally so, a flawed person like Angela is still a human and capable of becoming better.

Don’t be tempted to make your characters perfect. It’s unrelatable and inhuman. We need to see ourselves in the characters in our stories. A perfect person isn’t real. All the characters in The Office are flawed. Some more than others. But you still care about them. Human beings are not perfect and we are all capable of mistakes and cruelty in different circumstances. But don’t give up on us. Don’t think only perfect people will illicit care from your audience. We can care and love people despite their flaws, and in some cases, because of them.

Unresolved Sexual Tension In The US Office

Characterisation in The US Office on The Table Read
Pam and Jim

Characters forming romantic attachments to one another is a natural course of events. When you have a cast of characters all interacting with one another, some would become attracted to one another. In The Office, this is grown and built so by the time the characters do actually get together, the audience is fully invested.

Jim and Pam is the most clear example, though you also see it in Angela and Dwight, and Michael and Holly. From the pilot episode, Jim’s infatuation with Pam is clear. Pam’s love for Jim is also demonstrated, though her relationship with Roy gets in the way. However, it’s the audience who is let in on this secret, not the characters. The unrequited aspect of the love is shown in their lingering glances towards one another, their pain when one or the other is with someone else. They don’t share it with each other and it remains unresolved until the very end of Season 3.

By the time Jim does ask Pam out, you are completely and absolutely drawn into this love story. It has hooked you, reeled you, and now it owns you. That unresolved sexual tension is powerful.

How To Replicate This Effect

The power of writing unresolved sexual tension is in the effect it has on your audience. If you let two characters get together quickly, your audience might enjoy them and be happy for them, but it’ll go no further. Building that relationship up makes your audience WANT them to get together. As soon as your audience has hopes and dreams for your story, their emotionally invested in a real and captivated way.

Show two characters who are absolutely right for one another, but aren’t together. Put obstacles in their way. These obstacles could be shyness and insecurity, the lack of belief that the feelings would be reciprocated. If they work together there could be boundaries that aren’t crossed. Or they could be involved with other people.

It doesn’t matter what the obstacles are as long as there are reasons they can’t get together immediately. Once the characters have grown and overcome these obstacles, they can finally get together. It’s in the longing and the work to come together that your audience will find their emotional investment in that storyline.

A Lot To Learn From The US Office

Each topic I have covered here could be explored with multiple characters throughout The Office. Every character is motivated, driven, interesting and cares about multiple things. Each scene allows each character to pursue their goals and be interesting in and of their own right.

If you want to write a story with characters that really enhance the quality of your plot, I would recommend watching The Office. Follow each character arc, watch their relationships, focus on how they are always motivated.

More From JJ Barnes:

I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.

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