Once you have completed the general context of your character—knowing culture, location, time period and occupation—you must now begin to explore specificity within these elements.
This requires the next level of research, which again, involves drawing from your own life observations as well as developing unique, intricate attributes for your character.
Specific Context: First Step
Use your own life experiences and observations, but instead of exploring your character on the macro scale, you must now identify the micro details. Begin by basing details (from physical attributes to personality traits) on someone you know or combine details from a number of people to create a composite character. Perhaps your mother has a laugh or your best friend a unique tick that will find a home within your character.
It’s important to note, however, that what you know goes far beyond just the people in your life. What you know is your knowledge base. Maybe you’re a surfer, and the Kauai coast is your home away from home. Your intimate understanding of the surf culture in Hawaii is part of your knowledge base, which can add to the attitudes (positive, negative, or indifferent) that your protagonist may have about surfing, especially after she loses her left arm to a shark attack.
Moreover, what you know often comes from what you’re exposed to. Imagine you’ve set you’re protagonist in 1865 as a former Confederate soldier looking for vengeance and redemption as he journeys to the Union Pacific Railroad's westward construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad. He most likely has a sturdy build, beard, long, unkempt hair, with a fondness for whiskey. Images from historical books, literature, art or even other films you’ve seen are all resources that may influence how you mold your character.
Specific Context: Second Step
In the second stage of specific research, you must clarify your character's specific attributes, which can be broken up into two basic areas: Physical Description and Personality Core.
The appearance of your character includes everything from facial qualities to mannerisms.
– Is your character tall, short, a one-armed man?
– What about size? Weight?
– Posture? How does she carry her herself? With laborious tenacity or erotic sensuality?
– What about attractiveness? Gorgeous? Deformed? Missing an eye?
– How does he feel about his body? Confident? Insecure?
– Is she a minority who feels out of place with both people of her ethnicity and people who are different?
Physicality is important, as it can affect a character’s occupation, lifestyle, and identity.
For more on researching the specific context of your character, read Character Creation: Personality Core.
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.