Showing Your True Character : Tips on Writing Memorable Characters

Ferris Bueller is one of the most memorable movie characters of all time. When you think of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, do you think of the plot? Not a chance. The story was quite ordinary. A teenager skips school and spends the day having adventures and evading the school principal. If we didn’t care about him as a character, we might feel he deserved to get caught. As his sister says in the movie “Why should he get to ditch when everyone else has to go?” Maybe he did deserve to get caught, but we didn’t want him to!

Ferris was a charming free spirit, who, despite being very popular in high school, was kind to everyone and was admired almost universally. The only one who hated him was the principal, who was an uptight blowhard. We rooted for Ferris the whole way.

Though we might initially go see a movie because of what it’s “about” (the plot), we enjoy the movies – and go back again and again – for the characters. An interesting plot concept will entice moviegoers to see a film the first weekend. If the characters are dull and clichéd, word of mouth will spread and the movie will tank.

You must map out your characters as clearly as you map out your plot. Know as much about your characters as possible – far more than will actually show up in the story. You must understand what motivates your main character. Know where she’s going, where she’s been, what she believes, and why.

The most boring and obvious way to show off your character’s personality is through flashbacks and exposition through dialogue. “Boy, I just haven’t been the same since my mother left when I was two”. You might as well put up a flashing neon sign that says EXPOSITION THAT WILL BE IMPORTANT LATER. There are much more interesting ways to show off your character’s unique and carefully crafted personality.

Dialogue – What your characters say and how they say it. Quick, name these famous film characters from their lines of dialogue:

“Okay, then.”
“There’s no way I would go out with that guy.”
 “Cheers!”
“I feel the same way.”

Nobody? Didn’t think so. How about these:

“Alllllrighty then…”
 “As if!”
“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.”
“Ditto”.

Movement: You can tell a lot about a person by the way they carry themselves. How does Scarlett O’Hara enter a room? How about Pee Wee Herman? Consider Kramer’s jerky movements on Seinfeld vs. Mary Poppins’ ever prim posture. Dr. Evil’s trademark is the way he raises his pinky finger to his lips. Many times an actor may add a particular type of gesture to a character, but sometimes the idea can come from the screenwriter.

Jobs: Sometimes a character’s job is a vital part of the story, such as in The Wedding Singer and Clerks. Perhaps a character’s job is not that important but is at least interesting. The father in Father of the Bride works in some kind of tennis shoe factory. The 40-year-old virgin works in an electronics store. Try to avoid a generic office environment, even when the job is not integral to the plot. Use every chance you get to be entertaining.

Hobbies – Little details, such as knowing what a character likes to do in her spare time, further add to her identity. Marge Simpson is a good painter.  Rain Man likes to drive on the driveway and enjoys People’s Court.

Names: Take your time choosing character names. The name John McClane is horrible and irritates me every time I see Diehard. He’s a kickass action hero, not an accountant. Luke Skywalker – now there’s a name. 

Props: Dr. House has his cane. Indiana Jones has his hat. Sophia Petrillo of the Golden Girls never went anywhere without her purse. She took it bed with her and brought it into the kitchen with her when she went for a midnight snack.

Memorable minor characters –Though you don’t need to spend much time on a minor characters development and backstory, use every chance you get to be entertaining.  Each character, however minor, that appears has the potential to add dimension and entertainment value to your story. Consider the teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. We see him only once or twice in the film, but who could ever forget his call of “Bueller…Bueller…Bueller…”. It generates a laugh and contributes to the entertainment value of the film as a whole. How about the simple role of the secretary in Ghostbusters? Who could forget the huge glasses and her classic cry “Ghostbustahs, whaddya want?” Have fun with simple characters like waiters, store owners, and the like. 

If we don’t care about the characters – love ‘em or hate ‘em – we don’t care about the story. Take your time in developing your characters and then explore creative ways to show off their unique personalities.