The personality core, however, is much more complex and will fill up a large portion of the body of the character iceberg.
The six basic areas include: Strengths and Weaknesses; Complexities; Emotions; Attitudes; Values; Unique Qualities and Quirks.
Strengths and Weaknesses
A character defined by only strengths or only weaknesses is one-dimensional and uninteresting. Creating characters with both strengths and weaknesses, therefore, are more believable and realistic. Even superheroes are defined by both.
Superman is “more powerful than a locomotive,” yet he is powerless when exposed to Kryptonite, Storm can change the weather at will, but she suffers from claustrophobia, and venom negates Spiderman’s spider sense.
Sometimes a particular character trait works as both a strength and a weakness. The Incredible Hulk’s temper is clearly his greatest and worst attribute.
Conflict doesn’t always have to arise between characters; often it simply festers from a multitude of complexities within. We all possess ironies, paradoxes and hypocrisies, and you should never ignore these qualities to maintain character believability.
Exploring these qualities will unlock doors that lead to your character’s fears, desires, and deepest seeds of denial, often allowing for readers to sympathize or empathize even when they don’t condone a character’s actions.
In American Beauty Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) does everything in his power to teach his son how to be a man: strong, disciplined and heterosexual. To our surprise, however, we learn that he is in fact gay. The paradox within Fitts is both bewildering and understandable, given his strict military background.
The way a character feels is crucial knowledge you must have, allowing him or her to create motivated and rooted actions for your story.
A wife and husband may have a discussion about taxes, but in order for the scene to go anywhere, you must know how each feels about taxes, money, and financial security.
Emotions also allow for subtext, or what a character is not saying. People rarely say exactly what they mean and knowing a character’s underlying emotions can allow for the artifice of realistic and believable dialogue with complex layers.
Understanding a character’s attitude toward him/herself, toward others, and the surrounding circumstances is also essential.
If your character is an alcoholic preacher living in Harlem during the 1920s, knowing his attitude towards prohibition and racial inequality will be vital to specify.
Moreover, clarifying two characters’ feelings toward one another before they enter a scene together will be a launching pad for their interaction.
The decision you make in previous stages of research regarding the character’s upbringing, religion, and culture will be extremely helpful in establishing his or her values.
Knowing what a character stands for, from specific morals, concerns, philosophies, and belief systems, also helps to clarify actions and objectives in any given situation.
Robin Hood, for example, steals from the rich to give to the poor, but his actions to obtain that objective stems from a deep moral belief in the value of ethical justice.
This same value was echoed centuries later in Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letters From a Birmingham Jail, where King declared that, “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
Unique Qualities & Quirks
The icing on the cake comes when you toss those unique qualities and quirks into the mix.
Maybe it’s a wink, a repetitive tick or even a word all their own. Juno constantly carries around a super-size slurpee while Napoleon Dynamite fills his notebooks by doodling ligers.
Giving your character some incredibly specific quirky and unique qualities helps make them even that much more memorable.
In sum, all the specific work you do regarding character creation helps to make the development of the story that much easier. It’s clear how to navigate your characters through the plot, because you know exactly how they will feel about everything around them as well as what will inform the decisions they will make.
Believable and realistic dialogue will flow more easily because everything from vocabulary and speech patterns to emotional motivations and subtext will be clear in your mind.
Understanding the physicality of your characters will also allow you to distinguish how they move about in their world, how others view them, and how they view themselves.
Devoting the necessary time to research and development of character—whether you go about it internally or externally—will equal the quality of your creation. The more specific, the greater the opportunity for creating truly complex, compelling, and unforgettable characters.
For more on character development, read Character Creation: Specific Context.
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.