Writing characters is a varied art form and there’s a million ways to develop characters that are “great” “dimensional,” “original.” Here’s a trick I like to use:
- Who is this character, really?
- How do they present themselves to the world?
These are also good questions for life. If you want to know how someone wants to be seen, look at their instagram. If you want to know who someone is, share an inheritance with them.
This trick allows you to use two simple judgements to create a character that seems more complex.
Terminator 2 – Sarah Connor wants to be a tough, merciless warrior. At heart she’s a traumatized survivor and a good mom.
Die Hard – John McClane wants to be seen as a good husband. At heart he’s a warrior who tends to put action over family (this works out well for the story he’s in).
Zootopia: Judy Hopps wants to be seen as a progressive, enlightened person who busts old stereotypes. At heart she’s as much a slave to to stereotypes of her culture as anyone (she gets better).
The Office: Michael Scott pretends like everybody loves him and that his coworkers are his family, but he is actually pretty lonely. He thinks he is hilarious, but nobody laughs at his jokes. (credit to Moebius23)
Other examples: A coward who dreams of being a heroic gunslinger. A sucker who thinks they’re on the verge of cracking a conspiracy. A sexual addict who thinks they’re pure and virtuous.
Creating a simple dynamic like this allows you to create a character that’s both contradictory and consistent, and it also hints at a profound character want.
To deploy this in a story: whenever a character has time to think, let them do something consistent with the self image they’re selling. Whenever they’re pressured, tired, or think they can get away with it, let them be their true self.
Movie characters tend to be archetypes. The hero, the love interest, the villain. That’s not a bad thing, it’s baked into storytelling, and it allows for a narrative clarity that allows a varied audience to relate to a specific story.
The trick is to hide this with artifice. Despite the fact that everyone basically responds to archetypes, people also like to fancy themselves as discerning and smart, so if you’re too on the nose, you’ll get dinged for it by readers, by contest judges, by the talent you want to attract to your projects.