You don't get a career like John Wells' without being a thinking writer and not only creating intelligent programming but also considering the business end of things. But he's also always been unafraid to take risks-- a serialized drama like ER was not something he ever believed would make it to TV, let alone network TV (and he admitted he fears it would not be greenlit today)-- and trust that the biggest rewards come from the surprises in the business. No matter the network; no matter the genre; no matter the time period, though, Wells would never turn his back on the one thing that makes the entertainment industry go round: character. Without deep, interesting, unique, and yes colorful characters, a writer can still have a career, but it can't be one as profound or full of projects that become, not only part of the zeitgeist, but more importantly, part of history.
"It's about character," Wells said, specifically discussing his new show Shameless but really encompassing his whole body of work. "There's a moment at which for me, we're doing something that illuminates the character in some fashion or allows us to satirize or to be talking about or to sort of poke at social norms that we should be talking about that are uncomfortable to talk about. And those I'm willing to do. Things that are simply done for a laugh but don't have anything of that underneath it, to me...I don't want to do anything that damages the character."
Honestly, Wells' words should have so much weight. They should be the words of all writers-- in this business or those who "just" write for themselves. But the sad truth of the matter is many writers, especially when money begins to exchange hands, allow themselves to get swayed and tempted. They may defer to another's opinion on their story simply because they are their own worst critic and assume someone who has been in the business longer is more objective and "wiser" about storytelling. They may be reluctant to push back on notes or requests for changes, as well. In truth, many writers are self-deprecating, but there needs to be a defining line between that kind of self-imposed snark and a lack of self-esteem.
For Wells, it also comes down to wanting to keep his options open in the sense of where he can tell his stories: "As a writer and somebody who wants to make shows and work with wonderful actors, you want to be able to try to sell it as many places as you can because anything that's a little different is going to take a lot of different-- trying to sell it to a lot of different places before you get it done," Wells reminded.
The way to do that is to be as honest as possible with the idea and the characters because that is what endears others to a project-- that will make them "just have to have it." And for a writer, that is the goal every time. You may write a story for yourself, but ultimately, you hope there's an audience full of like-minded people who will gravitate towards it, and yes, validate it/you.