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A Guide to Creating Memorable Characters

Dylan Nikol

A Guide to Creating Memorable Characters

"The most important thing in drama, the only thing, is character." – David Mamet

In the realm of screenwriting, character is king. From the iconic heroes of blockbuster franchises to the nuanced protagonists of indie dramas, memorable characters are the driving force behind great films and TV shows. Here are some essential tips for crafting unforgettable characters that will captivate audiences:

1. Define Their Core Struggle

As Robert McKee famously said, "True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure." Every memorable character is defined by a central struggle, a conflict that tests their mettle and shapes their journey. Think of the existential crisis faced by Rust Cohle in "True Detective" or the moral dilemma confronting Michael Corleone in "The Godfather." By identifying your character's core struggle, you can create a foundation for a compelling arc.

2. Reveal Character Through Action

In the words of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, "I'm not interested in the words. I'm interested in what happens between the words." In a visual medium like film or television, actions speak louder than dialogue. Memorable characters are defined by what they do, not just what they say. In "Breaking Bad," Walter White's transformation from mild-mannered teacher to ruthless drug kingpin is revealed through his increasingly desperate and morally compromised actions.

3. Create Contradictions and Flaws

"A film should have two hours of characters with opposing goals, facing obstacles, not two hours of easy plot." – Peter Dunne

Memorable characters are not paragons of virtue or one-dimensional stereotypes. They are complex, flawed, and often contradictory. In "The Sopranos," Tony Soprano is a brutal mob boss who also struggles with anxiety and seeks therapy. These contradictions and flaws make him feel human and relatable, even as he commits heinous acts. Don't be afraid to give your characters weaknesses and inconsistencies; it's these imperfections that make them feel authentic.

4. Use Dialogue to Reveal Subtext

"What characters say is not as important as what they mean." – Syd Field

While actions may be the primary means of revealing character, dialogue is still a crucial tool in the screenwriter's arsenal. The key is to use dialogue to reveal subtext, the unspoken thoughts and emotions lurking beneath the surface. In "Lost in Translation," the conversations between Bob and Charlotte are often superficially mundane, but the subtext suggests a deep emotional connection and shared sense of existential ennui.

5. Give Them a Distinct Voice

Memorable characters have a unique way of speaking that sets them apart from others. Think of the rapid-fire banter of Tarantino's characters or the poetic monologues of Aaron Sorkin's protagonists. A character's voice should reflect their background, personality, and worldview. In "Deadwood," each character has a distinct manner of speaking, from Al Swearengen's Shakespearean profanity to Calamity Jane's rough-hewn plainspokenness.

6. Put Them in Situations That Test Their Values

"Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty." – William Archer

To create truly memorable characters, you must put them in situations that force them to make difficult choices and confront their deepest held beliefs. In "The Dark Knight," Harvey Dent's transformation into Two-Face is a result of the extreme circumstances that test his faith in justice and morality. By placing your characters in high-stakes scenarios that challenge their values, you can create compelling arcs that reveal the depths of their personalities.

Crafting memorable characters is the cornerstone of great screenwriting. By defining their core struggle, revealing character through action, embracing contradictions and flaws, using dialogue to expose subtext, giving them a distinct voice, and testing their values, you can create complex, authentic personalities that will resonate with audiences. As Sidney Lumet once said, "The best way to do honest work is to tell the truth about your characters." By staying true to your characters' humanity, flaws and all, you can craft stories that will endure long after the credits roll.