Real life is full of characters, and no matter how ordinary a person may seem, he or she still has a story. But what makes a story stick rarely rests on plot devices, theme, or situation alone. In most cases, a story is only as good as it’s character.
Hannibal Lector, Scarlett O’Hara, Forrest Gump all began as a seed of an idea in a writer’s head, a seed that blossomed into literary fiction and film icons. And that’s the goal: to create a truly unforgettable character.
When looking at creating memorable characters in both film and literature, most writers begin by planting the seed of a personality – an idea of a being. There is no universal template to follow when creating a character because writers can discover inspiration in a myriad of ways; however, there are a few places to begin sowing those seeds: family, strangers, composites, and symbols.
Using Your Family
Family is always a good starting point. They’re the people you spend day in and day out with and sometimes you may know them even better than yourself.
Living with family members allows you the opportunity to observe the evolution of specific people over time, witness their strengths and weaknesses, see how they make decisions, and watch how important events change them in profound or insignificant ways.
A divorce, a career choice, your dad’s new corvette are all circumstances that could ignite a writer’s interest in exploring a character struggling with commitment, confidence, or perhaps a mid-life crisis.
Eugene O'Neill, American playwright and Nobel Laureate in Literature, used his family when writing his Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece Long Day's Journey Into Night. Many key aspects of the play closely parallel Eugene O'Neill's own life: from the location, a summer home in Connecticut (O'Niell's family owned the Monte Cristo Cottage, in New London, Connecticut ) to the characters of Mary, James, and Jamie (all of whom have the same names of his real-life mother, father, and brother) to each character's dependence upon alcohol and morphine (both his father and brother were alcoholics while his mother was a morphine addict) to the actual ages of the characters (the same ages of the O'Neill family in August 1912).
Sometimes a seed of an idea can begin with a stranger. Of course, if you value your live, you will need to be more careful than L.B. "Jeff" JEfferies (James Stewart) when watching out your Rear Window.
More often than not, we’re surrounded by intricate people and personalities who we know nothing about. The man who sits next to you on the subway, your fellow early morning Starbucks addict, that lonely neighbor and her seven cats, all are potential characters.
But why might these characters be compelling? That's just it. The question “why?” is often the match that ignites a writer’s first steps to character creation. Why does the man on the subway wear a probation ankle bracelet? Why does that woman at Starbucks order a cheese croissant, hold the cheese? Why does your cat-loving-neighbor have a wedding band on her ring finger if she's never been married?
Creating a Composite
A character doesn’t have to evolve from one particular person. Often, a character can be a composite of many different people or experiences.
Whether it's Batman's fictional split-personality villain Harvey Dent/Two Face or the free-spirited young woman you work with who reminds you of your mother when she was a hippie, two personalities combined to create a composite can become excellent character inspiration.
Some of the best writing comes from writing what you know, and a writer often knows himself or herself best. There may be an element within you that you want to explore, possibly a particular personality trait or paradox, so you simply plug that trait into another character in a different world.
Maybe you want to examine the effects of a family member’s death, but instead of making the protagonist a mirror of him/herself, your character is twenty years older and based off your college sociology professor. The combination of different inspirations can lead to a character with a vast spectrum of personality traits.
Symbols and Images
The beginning of a character, though, does not always start with a person. It can originate from a symbol or an image. You may see something—a crucifix, a waterfall, or angle wings—which might lead to a potential character.
Take American Beauty, a film that uses the red rose as one of Carol’s (Annette Benning) gardening obsessions. Screenwriter Alan Ball uses the image of the rose as a symbol for perfection, which his female protagonist consistently struggles for.
The creation of a complex, intelligent, captivating character begins with an idea, a seed of inspiration.
Whether it be from someone the writer knows extremely well, like a family member, a stranger who’s behavior they find fascinating or a symbol that ignites an interest, a character must start somewhere.
Once the seed is planted, it’s up to you to begin adding layers to bring your character to life.
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.