Great characters are one of the essential elements of any great story. They are at the forefront of any great narrative and without them, even the greatest idea or theme can become dull.
Being entertained by characters in your screenplay is no different to being entertained by people in everyday life. If we’re taking a car journey for two hours and your fellow passenger is going to tell you their life story, we’re not going to want to spend it with the monotonous ‘Karen' who keeps crying about her trivial life problems… To be honest I’d rather sit there in silence!
But on the other hand, what if Karen had a huge scar on her face? She was a drunk with a bottle of whiskey in her hand and she kept flashing her breasts at the people looking at her scar? - That’s the Karen I want to be in a car with, she has a history and she’s intriguing, different, daring; a break from normality.
Humour me... Who would you rather observe and listen to for two hours?
I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but we all naturally do, it's in our genes. As a writer, use this to your advantage. If you want to create interesting and unique characters, start with their clothes, this might give you some inspiration for their thoughts and what decisions they make in your screenplay.
Now onto the 4 ways you can write great and memorable characters….
Photograph by Daniel McFadden / Sony Pictures Classics / Everett
The desire of your character is one of the most important aspects of your screenplay. What does your character want? Does their ‘want’ resonate with us?
The audience are going to be a lot more interested in your story if your character wants something deep, meaningful to us or intrinsic to our social and societal needs - such as wanting to be great (ego - Whiplash).
Many other effective devices can be used such as the desire to overcome a setback out of their control; an illness, an oppressive society, a natural disaster, a menacing villain etc.
We naturally warm to and gravitate towards people who are altruistic and selfless. Heroes are courageous and sacrifice themselves for other peoples happiness, benefit or gain.
Although the old expression is true that ‘your character doesn’t have to be likeable’, it does not mean they aren’t heroic and courageous - but still an arsehole! Even James Bond isn't squeaky clean.
The history of every character you write is vital for your screenplay. Past experiences shape the kind of people we become, so you can give your characters a rich history that influences the individual.
Flaws add more interest to your characters, they might be combative and on-the-back-foot, but it’s ok because we know that a rough past can influence this. In fact, it usually creates empathy because after all, anger is associated with a long history of pain and injustice.
Flaws can also tie in nicely with your characters main desire. The opposing nature of your characters flaws and desire will really take your writing to the next level - I mean Hitchcock named his film after this one masterful attribute (Vertigo)!
This isn’t essential but and added bonus for your characters. Making them different, weird, aloof, OCD or eccentric is a way of engaging the audience even more than you have done.
Adding in character idiosyncrasies also evoke curiosity and fascination. The audience will be trying to naturally work your character out, down to the details in how and why he cleans a door handle every time he enters a room. You now have them engaged in the details!
If you have any questions about your characters or how you can improve them, get in touch with us!
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Stay writing folks!