You’ll often hear me talk about the premise of a movie. When I do, I’m usually talking about the premise test:
An <ADJECTIVE> <PROTAGONIST TYPE> must <GOAL> or else <STAKES>. They do this by <DOING> and learns <THEME>.
An <ADJECTIVE> suggests the characters main trait. It also gives them the start of a personality and starts to individuate them from other people who are similar. It’s basically the principal character trait in the movie. Characters will have more than one trait, but the<ADJECTIVE> is the one that they show the most, the one that most informs the story.
Look at Captains on Star Trek. They all have the same job, but you’d never confuse Sisko for Kirk for Janeway for Picard for Archer. They’re all their own people.
Here are some tips for adjectives:
AVOID REDUNDANCY: A fierce warrior. A commanding commander. A suspicious IRS auditor. A loving mother. All these are wasted words. If your main characters’ adjective is one of the first five words most people would associate with a type, then you might not be digging deeply enough.
BE SPECIFIC: Even if “eccentric millionaire” wasn’t redundant, I don’t know what eccentricity looks like. Does he have a dozen cats? Collect shrunken heads? Bathe in the blood of his manservants? Just as with type, you want the reader to get a picture of what their trait might look like. Be as specific as possible.
LOOK FOR IRONY: A cowardly knight. A reluctant father. A virginal President of the United States. All these represent a break from the expected, and make your character more memorable. However, this can lead to overuse, you don’t want to be clever for clever’s sake, so…
THE CHARACTER TYPE SHOULD INFORM THE DOING IN THE SECOND ACT: Imagine PINEAPPLE EXPRESS with James Bond. Bond easily kills all the low-rent thug and goes on to an actual challenge. Imagine MACBETH and OTHELLO with switched characters: MacBeth carefully sees through Iago’s schemes, Othello kills the usurping uncle in a bold and public coup.
A NEGATIVE TRAIT INFORMS THE ARC: If a knight is cowardly, its a pretty good bet that his adventure will cause him to overcome his cowardice while doing knight stuff.
RANDOM ADJECTIVE NOTES
The second act should push the character out of their comfort zone. If they’re fighting zombies, they should be unlikely zombie fighters. If they fight zombies every, this zombie adventure should push them far past their comfort zone.
Consider dimensionalizing the trait a little. If the night is cowardly, have him be cowardly but generous with his meager possessions. That’s won’t show up in the premise test, but it’s worth thinking about.
Don’t forget to give a character something that’s likeable. If a character is a depressed sad sack, but he has a girlfriend, she must see something in him. Make sure you have a rough idea of what that is. Again, this won’t show in the premise test, but it’s worth thinking about.
This post on aligned traits might help. http://www.reddit.com/r/Screenwriting/comments/299czd/writing_multidimensional_characters_unaligned_and/