Fleabag was one of the most poignant, raunchy, hilarious, and heartbreaking series of the late 2010s—and it’s got the awards to prove it.
But what makes Fleabag so good?
At least in part, the answer is Fleabag herself—the titular character played by show-runner Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
Fleabag is a witty, sex-fixated, hot mess of a cafe owner who is grieving the loss of both her mother and her best friend. She delivers sharp one-liners directly into the camera that give words to the feelings we’ve all felt but never been able to express, making the audience cry from laughter and, well, just cry.
To develop similarly dynamic, compelling characters in your own works, take these eight screenwriting lessons from Fleabag and her creator, Waller-Bridge, to heart.
(Warning! Spoilers ahead!)
1. Can’t find a name that fits? Don’t use a name at all.
Once you get a few episodes into Fleabag, you’ll likely find one question plaguing your mind—wait, what is the protagonist’s name?
In truth, she doesn’t have one.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Waller-Bridge reveals that she had initially tried to come up with a name, but couldn’t find anything that fit—and then realized the omission was exactly befitting of the character.
While the central character is never named on-screen, within the script pages, she’s dubbed “Fleabag,” which is based on Waller-Bridge’s real-life familial nickname, Flea. “That word, ‘fleabag,’ that felt right, because there’s a messy connotation to it,” she explains.
Similarly, other prominent characters are never given proper names, either. Peruse the script and you’ll find “Godmother,” “The Priest,” “Arsehole Guy,” “Dad,” “Bank Manager,” “Hot Misogynist,” and hilariously, “Bus Rodent.”
As you develop your own characters, instead of agonizing over the perfect name, write in a descriptive filler. If a name comes to you later, great! If not, pull the references from the dialogue and roll with it.
2. Tread carefully around cliched backstories and hallmark traumas.
Fleabag: “I don’t know what to do with it.”
Boo: “With what?”
Fleabag: “With all the love I have for her. I don’t know where to put it now.”
Boo: “I’ll take it.”
Boo: “No, I’m serious. It sounds lovely. I’ll have it.”
Talk about a punch to the gut.
We hear that dialogue during a flashback to right after Fleabag’s mother’s funeral. Fleabag is understandably devastated, but instead of hammering us over the head with how full of sadness she is, Waller-Bridge makes us feel her loss by creating the image of Fleabag’s love with nowhere to go.
Of course, this conversation is taken from bittersweet to absolutely soul-crushing with the added context that Boo, too, is dead—and that Fleabag feels responsible for the death of the best friend who held her love for her mother. Yikes.
The lesson to take here is that if you’re trying to come up with a gripping backstory to layers to add to a character’s background or perspectives, push yourself to go beyond superficial or generic assumptions about cliche traumas.
Far too often, writers and storytellers will give their characters a harrowing backstory in order to tick boxes. “Want a troubled youth? Give them dead parents.” But stories are much, much more interesting when you challenge yourself to add something new—a unique experience, original reaction, or a nuanced, highly personal response.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Waller-Bridge describes her efforts to ensure Fleabag’s internal turmoil didn’t stem from cliches “in stories about female damage, like, the day she was raped or had an abortion.” She was trying to come up with a unique tragedy in response to a prompt for a 10-minute sketch in a stand-up storytelling night, and so she imagined how she would feel if her best friend, director Vicky Jones, died.
Then, she pushed it even further by asking “But what if it was my fault?”
If your character has a tragedy in their backstory, ask yourself what you’re hoping to accomplish with it and if there is another, more unique experience that can do it better. Then, make sure your character’s response to the situation is uniquely theirs—why couldn’t another character have the same reaction? How does their personality shape their reaction?
3. Don’t dilute your character’s perspective.
The Priest: “I’d really like to be your friend, though.”
Fleabag: “I’d like to be your friend, too. [Aside] We’ll last a week.”
The Priest: [spooked] “What was that?!”
The Priest: “Where did… Where did you just go?”
The Priest: “You just went somewhere.”
Fleabag: [Aside glance to camera]
The Priest: “There! There! Where did you just go?”
It’s rare to find a television series so unapologetically focused on only one character’s perspective. Throughout the entire two seasons, you’ll never see action unfold that isn’t through the eyes of our titular character, Fleabag.
Through cheeky asides and powerful admissions straight to camera, we see the world as Fleabag sees it. Every moment we share with Fleabag is worth treasuring—we feel let in on her darkest secrets and most personal (or raunchy) thoughts.
And the uniqueness of that relationship should be protected.
To explain, we can look at a scene that didn’t make it into the final script. In Episode 5 of Season 1, Fleabag gets a mammogram and suspects that the doctor is enjoying it a bit too much. “You’re getting something out of this,” she thinks about him to the camera.
In the original script, she was quickly proven right: she walks into his office and finds him masturbating at his desk.
The producers didn’t love the scene and Waller-Bridge agreed that something about it didn’t quite work, and so it was cut. But later, she realized why it didn’t click. “It diluted Fleabag’s perspective on the world. She has to be the only one to have a hyper-perverse interpretation of what she sees,” she reveals. “She can think that that guy’s doing it, but the moment he actually does it, it’s not just her perspective. He’s another Fleabag.”
As writers, it’s fun to write a character with such a strong take on the world—and so it becomes easy to accidentally apply their perspective or humor to another character. But to keep our protagonist special, some things should stay unique to them.
What is your protagonist’s unique take on the world? How do they interpret events differently than other characters? Write down how they perceive people and experiences, and then ensure no other character does it quite the same way.
4. Avoid one-note wonders.
Fleabag: “Hair is everything, we wish it wasn’t so we could actually think about something else occasionally. But it is. It’s the difference between a good day and a bad day. We’re meant to think that it’s a symbol of power, that it’s a symbol of fertility. Some people are exploited for it and it pays your fucking bills. Hair is everything.”
While there is truth to the screenwriting adage, “raise the stakes,” characters get boring when literally nothing goes their way and the entire world is against them. We watch shows to see someone overcoming difficult odds—not a pity party.
Although Fleabag’s character is clearly struggling with some internal turmoil, she’s never a 100% wreck. In fact, part of the reason she is so compelling is that the audience gets to see behind the curtain.
“I always wanted the feeling of someone who was a scream, a great person to have at a party,” Waller-Bridge explains to Vanity Fair. “If you met at a bar, you’d be like, ‘This girl’s on top of everything. She’s funny, she’s witty, she’s clever, she’s so self-aware. She must be flying.’ And then she leaves and someone goes, ‘You realize her mother and her best friend died, like, a year ago?”
Throughout both seasons, Fleabag is never lacking charm. Much to her sister’s chagrin, new acquaintances find her hilarious. She is always well put together, wears fashionable clothes, has a beautiful haircut, and even dons her own unique lip color (which Waller-Bridge’s make-up artist now calls “Phoebe”).
If we weren’t so intimately let in on her life, we might well not know anything was wrong beneath the surface.
What is your protagonist good at? Where do they excel? Give your character at least one area of life where things are going their way, and challenge yourself to juxtapose how a character is perceived by others and their internal life.
5. Give your protagonist an actual flaw.
Fleabag: “I have a horrible feeling I am a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.”
In a job interview, “What is your greatest weakness?” is a trap. In a script, it’s an opportunity.
Just like we get quickly get bored with characters who have nothing going their way, we also get bored with characters who are untouchable.
So, we give them a flaw.
From a story perspective, a flaw is a character trait that your protagonist must change to achieve their objective. It doesn’t necessarily have to be negative, though it often is interpreted that way—characters often have to overcome selfishness, fear, arrogance, obsessions, black-and-white world views, and more to accomplish their goals.
(Side note: If your character doesn’t resolve their flaw but instead leans into it, they are called an “anti-hero.”)
Fleabag is admittedly self-absorbed and fixated on sex—a flaw which proved fatal when it came to her best friend, Boo. Throughout the series, Fleabag has to learn to not default to purely sexual relationships and to share her feelings in other ways so that she can process her grief.
Fleabag’s imperfection is a large part of what makes her so compelling and so human. Even if the audience can’t relate to her flaw specifically, we can all relate to the idea of having a flaw in general, and so we can sympathize.
What is your protagonist’s flaw? Make sure it wouldn’t be a good answer for a job interview. Whatever flaw you choose, it should constantly make your protagonist’s life harder at every single turn.
6. Know what you’re trying to say.
“Being proper and sweet and nice and pleasing is a fucking nightmare. It’s exhausting.” Says Phoebe Waller-Bridge in an interview with the Guardian.
The most powerful characters have something to say—they have opinions, perspectives, and points of view that are unique and give the audience something to think about.
One of Fleabag’s most magnetic qualities is that she lets us in on her uninhibited thoughts. Ones that are funny, honest, painful, sexual, judgemental, joyful, confused, and all.
As we hear what Fleabag is literally saying to us, we also hear what Waller-Bridge is trying to say: more than anything, Waller-Bridge explains in an interview with The Cut, Fleabag is about “the glory of being a woman,” and all the triumphs and trials that come with it.
With every aspect of Fleabag, Waller-Bridge explores elements of womanhood and identity in the face of grief. She goes on to explain, “I had these wonderful friendships with brilliant women, but how is it that these happy, empowered, sexually voracious women around me are all sad? How does that work out?” Then, after a pause, “It comes down to your relationship with your self, doesn’t it?”
Before you lock down character details, think about what you’re trying to say with your story. Often, there is a theme or idea we subconsciously want to explore that is drawing us to this material. As yourself, “Why do I have to tell this story?”
Once you can articulate what it is you’re trying to say, take a look at your protagonist. Are they built in the best possible way to examine that dramatic premise? Is there a way you can alter them to explore it even more?
7. Tell your character’s story with unbridled, unapologetic honesty.
Fleabag: “Either everyone feels like this and they’re just not talking about it or I am completely fucking alone.”
Often, the most powerful stories articulate a truth about a common experience in a way that makes audience members say, “Oh my God, I never knew anyone else felt that way.” And Fleabag is an expert at accomplishing exactly that.
One of the most immediately notable aspects of Fleabag is the unusual way in which she breaks the fourth-wall and establishes a personal relationship with the audience. Whether it’s just a funny side-eye or a winding diatribe, Fleabag lets us in on her most intimate, honest thoughts without concern of judgment.
Her honesty about her fears, desires, and shame helps us to not only root for her during her most unredeemable moments but also allows us to see ourselves in her shoes. And this is by design.
When coming up with Fleabag’s troubling backstory (namely, her role in the death of her best friend, Boo), Waller-Bridge says, “I was trying to think of the worst thing she could do, and then try and make the audience love her anyway.”
Characters need an outlet for their inner-lives—whether that’s spilling their guts to a trusted confidant, breaking the fourth wall, or something more destructive. How will your protagonist express their inner-most thoughts on screen? Will they speak their thoughts aloud, or express them some other way?
8. Make sure your character has stories to tell.
Fleabag to The Priest: “I want someone to tell me what to wear every morning. I want someone to tell me what to eat. What to like, what to hate, what to rage about, what to listen to, what band to like, what to buy tickets for, what to joke about, what not to joke about. I want someone to tell me what to believe in, who to vote for, who to love and how to tell them.”
In no other context could the above quote be a heart-breakingly romantic profession of love. But for Fleabag, it’s as romantic as holding a boombox in the pouring rain outside of her lover’s bedroom window.
There are few things more disappointing than a story that drags on past its life expectancy—when the audience knows the writer ran out of ideas and is scraping the bottom of the barrel.
If your character has already completely wrapped up their flaw and completed their arc, it would be futile to drag out that storyline any longer. Instead, take a cue from Fleabag and consider other avenues within that character’s life.
Fleabag was only ever meant to be one self-contained season. But the rabid fan base and critical acclaim left people wanting more—and Waller-Bridge at a loss. In the final scene of Season 1, Fleabag leaves finally the camera (and us, the audience) behind, shedding her reliance on us and effectively moving on with her life.
How could that relationship possibly be reopened?
After pondering it for some time, Waller-Bridge realized that there was another compelling avenue of Fleabag’s life to explore: romance. And so, we got The Priest—the object of Fleabag’s affections for Season 2.
And, to make matters even more interesting, The Priest interacts with Fleabag on a level no other character has: he notices her asides to us, the audience, as though he can see into her soul.
Compare your character’s arc with the arc of the story. Does your character resolve their flaw long before or after they achieve their objective? Ideally, find a way to sync up both arcs. If you’re trying to expand upon your story (like in a series), think about new transformations your character could undergo—not just new situations you could put them in.
Putting It All Together
Phoebe Waller-Bridge created a truly dynamic, brutally honest character in Fleabag. As you develop your own characters, look to Fleabag to ensure that you’re building a three-dimensional protagonist, complete with their own backstories, outlooks on life, flaws, super-powers, beliefs, and arcs.