Creating Characters – Off The Shelf or Do It Yourself?

1) Winston Wolf

There’s currently an interesting episode of Marketing Week’s podcast, Marketing That Matters, in which they talk to the creators of Direct Line’s ‘Fixer’ adverts. You know the ones, with Harvey Keitel reprising his Winston Wolf (or Wolfe, the Internet doesn’t really know) character from Pulp Fiction – the ultimate guy to fix anything.

To cut a medium-sized podcast short, they’d gone down the route of competing on level of service rather than purchase price as they were bypassing comparison websites. And a conversation happened where they hit on ‘wouldn’t it be great if you could get Winston Wolf to fix it when things go wrong’.

The question for me is: when to use off-the-shelf characters like Winston, Chabuddy G or the boys from Red Dwarf and when to create and grow your own, like Aleksandr Meerkat or Gio Compare.

Plus Points

One of the plus points for using a ready-made character is that you can look for someone that embodies the vision you see in your mind. It’s like writing a script with established actors already screen tested and cast – either a wish list like David Tennant and Olivia Colman or an even bigger wish list like turning it into a writer-performer piece (eg Stath Lets Flats, Lee and Dean, This Country, Catastrophe, Citizen Khan, Miranda, Mrs Brown etc).

Using an off-the-shelf character lets you come up with the concept first and then ask, “who would embody this?” or “what would the fantasy version of this be like?” They’re instantly recognisable and your audience will understand the shorthand that the character creates. However, this has possible negative associations, as the Direct Line guys admit. Winston Wolf had some pretty dodgy history in Pulp Fiction and it was a big gamble associating him with their product.


Another downside is that you may not get the character you’re looking for if they’re caught up in ownership rights or there are issues with copyright. You’ve also got to pay for those rights and the specific actor involved, as long as they’re not incredibly busy and are willing and able to take part.

Or what if there isn’t someone in popular culture that personifies your product? Do you go with a character that’s nearly there but doesn’t make your heart tingle? Kind of like getting hitched in real life and then, like Elvis, lamenting that ‘it’s just breaking my heart cause she’s not you.’

In which case, do you design your own? And if so, what method do you use?

Do you try to create a rip-off character that falls short and can only garner negative comparisons? Or do you take your concept and come up with someone original, with their own history and three dimensions intact. A character that you can know inside out, take ownership of and build a world around?

There’s no easy solution here, and probably more questions than answers. But I’m looking forward to exploring these questions in future blogs.

One question to leave you with – what methods do you use for character creation? Physical looks first or a CV approach or something more holistic?

Published by Declan Hill

I write about sitcoms in advertising.

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