Last of the Summer Wine: Why Character Counts

Bill Owen, Brian Wilde, and Peter Sallis as Compo, Foggy, and Clegg (Image: BBC)

Last of the Summer Wine, the television series about three Yorkshire lads who got old but never grew up aired from 1973 to 2010, an amazing 294 episodes, making it the longest-running scripted sitcom in Britain and the world. That’s impressive.

Not everyone loved the silliness (think the slapstick comedy of Fawlty Towers), but the characters earned their places, if not in our collective hearts, certainly in our collective memories—easygoing everyman Norman Clegg; impulsive Compo Simmonite; quirky war veteran Foggy Dewhirst; the perpetually unimpressed Nora Batty; quarreling husband-and-wife café owners Sid and Ivy; the milkman who fancied himself a secret agent; Billy Hardcastle, who claimed to be a direct descendant of Robin Hood.

The small original cast grew and grew as characters left the show and others were added. After all, the actors were elderly themselves. Some experienced health problems, and over the course of 49 years, as we might expect, many passed away.

When Brian Wilde, “Foggy,” died in 2008, The Guardian ran an article about the show’s legacy:

…getting hung up on the slapstick means you’re likely to miss the heart of the programme—a story of people of advanced years messing about in the face of their own mortality, whiling away the time as life winds down. The silliness is a counterpoint to the sadness. The note of veiled melancholy is right there in the title of the show—winter, while never spoken of directly, is always just around the corner. There’s something gently mournful about Last of the Summer Wine. Not simply because of the deaths of many cast members over the years…but because that elegiac has been woven into its very fabric.

Right now, as I’m planning a new book in the Kate Hamilton series and also plotting out a possible new series, I’m thinking about the characters in Last of the Summer Wine. The appeal of the series certainly wasn’t the plot or even the comedy. At the heart of the series were the characters, and that’s true of the books we write as well. The characters we create are what keep readers coming back, book after book.

So how does an author create characters who are unique, fully realized, and believable? In a previous blog about Creating Interesting Characters, I said one of the joys of writing fiction is creating characters your readers will never forget. That means giving them a life of their own, a life that extends beyond the pages of the novel.

Here is my list of ten things I try to incorporate into my main characters:

1. A Unique Identity—all the distinguishing qualities that make each person different from all others.

2. A Past—a personal history that motivates and informs that character’s present actions and responses.

3. A Family—the people that helped shape that character’s life, even if all those people are dead.

4. Skills & Abilities—the personal traits that qualify your character to take on the challenge of the novel.

5. Disabilities & Struggles—those physical, emotional, and intellectual deficits that create tension and barriers the character must overcome.

6. Fears—both the character’s surface fears (like acrophobia) and the underlying,  psychological fears like the fear of loss and abandonment.

7. Flaws—the individual quirks that help readers identify with our characters and remember them. [Read my blog on Faults, Flaws, Fears, and Failings here.]

8. A Confidant—the person your character trusts; the one to whom she reveals her innermost thoughts and feelings.

9. A Saving Grace—even bad guys should have one, even if it’s only a soft spot for kittens.

10. A Motivation —an overarching goal and, especially for amateur sleuths, a plausible reason for involving himself in the investigation of a crime.

Author, blogger, and social media maven Kristen Lamb said, “Great fiction is fueled by bad decisions and human weakness.” For authors, creating those unique, flawed, and memorable characters is just plain fun.

Which fictional characters remain in your memory? What was it about them that made them unforgettable?

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5 thoughts on “Last of the Summer Wine: Why Character Counts

  1. I’m a long-time fan of Last of the Summer Wine, exposing my two children the the marvelous series when it aired on PBS. My son adored Compo. My daughter thought they were all too batty.

    Clegg won me over. Still adore the quiet, vest-wearing little man. Thanks for bringing them to others, Connie!

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