What is character?
While it seems intimidating, creating an unforgettable character begins with understanding what “character”means. Webster’s Dictionary defines character as “the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing.” However, this definition misses many key elements.
Historical period, professional occupation, world location, and cultural context also play a major role with influencing a particular character’s way of thinking, his/her speech patterns, and how he/she applies principles, ethics, or feelings. Audiences want to see a character whose actions reflect qualities, which they want to see in themselves.
On the flip side, a perfect character bores an audience. Without weaknesses, characters cease to be interesting. Superman is “more powerful than a locomotive,” yet he is powerless when exposed to Kryptonite. James Bond might be arrogant and dismissive, yet it's his weakness for beautiful women that truly gets him in trouble.
In terms of a character’s personality core, imperfection breeds perfection. When flaws, paradoxes, ironies, and hypocrisies juxtapose values, morals, and philosophies, then a complete character begins to materialize. All the while specific emotions, attitudes, and quirks set the character apart.
But a truly great character displays more than just a writer’s concrete understanding of that character’s physiology, sociology, and psychology. Strong characters have clear wants, desires, and objectives as well as substantial obstacles that stand in their way.
Edward Scissorhands wants to be loved, but he has knives for hands. Dorothy Gale wants to go back to Kansas, but she’s trapped in the “Merry Old Land of Oz.” And then there’s Marlin… he’s a fish, but we want nothing more than to see him find his son Nemo and make their way back home.
A character that has a believable goal and fights hard to achieve it will compel an audience. Regardless of the specific details that form her personality, your character must have a clear objective, one that we hope and fear for; otherwise, the journey will be unfulfilling because we won't care whether she wins or loses.
Michael Schilf, co-founder of TheScriptLab.com, is an acclaimed screenwriter and highly sought after script consultant, with nearly twenty years of experience teaching screenwriting at the collegiate level. His latest work, a memoir, The Sins of My Father, hits bookstores later this year. Visit his blog for insights on story, character, and structure, and follow him on Twitter.