How are memorable, believable, intriguing characters made? While there’s no one right way, I can give you some pointers to help you find your own process.
1. Imagine your characters as personalities, not as a collection of visuals.
Filmmakers tend to be visual people, and I often see scripts that approach a character from the outside, and stop there. The writer knows what she wants the scene to look like, but hasn’t thought any more deeply about it. When you think about your characters, think in detail about personality traits. Who is this character? Why does he do what he does? What does he want?
2. Think of your characters as real people with needs and desires.
I often see characters that are treated as nothing but events in the life of the main character. Imagine your characters as real people with goals, hopes, dreams, and fears. What does this person want? What does she want from the other character(s) in the scene? What is her opinion about the other character(s) in the scene, what’s happening around them, what might happen, etc?
3. People are never generic, always specific.
Don’t throw generic characters into scenes just to advance the narrative. Start thinking of characters as essential parts of the equation of storytelling. You can, with a little more thought, advance your narrative just as well—actually, better—with an interesting bartender instead of a generic “bartender.” What’s more, an interesting, complex character can take your narrative in unexpected directions. Allow your characters to be specific people and see where that takes you.
4. The stronger your antagonist, the stronger your protagonist.
Make sure your antagonist isn’t entirely unlikeable from the get go. It cheapens your protagonist’s eventual victory (or defeat, if that’s where you’re going). Make your antagonist a worthy opponent and the end will be much more satisfying. Take a tip from Shakespeare—all of his villains have some redeeming qualities, and all of his heroes have some flaws. People are complex, and if you want your characters to be believable, they must reflect that. An antagonist who has a point and makes some sense in his opposition to the protagonist will provide a much more satisfying conclusion.
5. Show, don’t tell.
Yes, I know this is the 100th time you’ve heard this, but it’s really true. Your character doesn’t need to offload sixteen lines of exposition in the first scene. Don’t be afraid of a little ambiguity. Allow the actors some room to create believable characters with your text. Real people are sometimes indirect, are mistaken, or lie. People seldom come right out and say precisely what they’re thinking. Show us the character, the relationships, and the emotional journey. Don’t feel the need to load it all into the lines.
6. Pay attention to “voice.”
Create specific character voices. Observe the people around you—you’ll encounter interesting character voices every day. Individuals have specific vocabularies, speech patterns, and ways of framing and expressing opinions. Build this in tandem with your characters’ personality traits, as they will inform each other.
My last, and most important word of advice: Follow your heart. Tell the story you need to tell in the way you need to tell it. Only you can tell your stories, so honor those stories by crafting the best scripts you can.
Melissa Hillman teaches at the Berkeley Digital Film Institute in Berkeley, CA. She holds a PhD in Dramatic Art from UC Berkeley and is the Artistic Director of Impact Theatre, a small professional theatre company with a national reputation for staging new plays by emerging playwrights.