What are the rules of writing for Mindy Kaling (The Office, The Mindy Project, Four Weddings and a Funeral)?
Welcome to our ongoing Learning from the Masters and Industry Insiders series where we seek out and feature excellent videos, interviews, and discussions of the art, craft, and business of screenwriting and pull the best words of wisdom, writing tips, and screenwriting advice.
Here we turn to the 2013 Entertainment Weekly article “New Hollywood Starring Mindy Kaling” where Kaling shares her voice checklist that was pinned up in her writers’ room for The Mindy Project. We share her rules and offer our own brief elaboration as well.
#1 Characters Are Helpful and Kind
There are plenty of examples of characters in film and television that are anything but helpful and kind, but that type of characterization gets old really fast.
The characters that connect with audiences the most are those that showcase such positive character traits — or strive to attain them at the very least.
#2 No One Is a Moron
While outright mean characters with no heart get old (read above) real fast, so do characters that are utterly moronic for the sake of laughs.
Steve Carell’s character in the Anchorman films is a perfect example. Yes, he’s a moron. That’s the joke. And yes, it’s quite funny. But he’s also a secondary character that is not central to the main storyline.
Stupidity for its own sake, and for the hilarity of the writing, stops being funny real fast.
Characters can have flaws, but if they’re an outright moron with no redeeming intelligence, they are nothing but one-dimensional.
#3 Characters Are Polite
Rude characters can be funny and engaging. They say what we all wish we could say in any given situation.
The titular character in Loudermilk is a perfect example. He has little to no filter and doesn’t shy away from calling anyone and everyone out. However, he strives not to be that way anymore. He strives to be polite.
Your characters don’t need to be perfectly polite dogooders. In fact, it can be argued that they shouldn’t be. But they need to at least strive to treat others well. Otherwise, once again, it gets old very fast, and the audience will more likely than not turn against utterly rude lead characters eventually.
#4 Conflict Should Never Come from a Desire to Be Cruel or Mean
It’s very easy to create conflict between characters by having one of them acting out of cruelty or meanness just for the sake of being cruel and mean.
There should be more to it than that.
#5 Do Not Fear Nuance — Comedy from Avoiding Conflict, Not Instigating It
It’s not about how terrible a character can be. The best comedy and conflict arises from learning the reasons why those characters are being that terrible to others.
#6 Characters Don’t Have to Be Maxed Out to Be Funny
When you overplay a character for comedy, you’re overplaying your hand. Sure, some amazingly hilarious characters have been taken as far as that type of character can possibly go — all for the sake of laughs — but, for one last time, it gets old.
Overall, these six rules really point to the fact that too many writers — professional and undiscovered — can fall into the traps of tropes and cliches. And those are the worst traps that you can fall into as a writer.
If you want to stand out with some genuinely original and unique concepts, stories, and characters, dare to do something different. These six rules will help you along the way in doing just that.
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