When I was lucky enough to hear D.C. Fontana speak at an AWG General Meeting, the thing she kept repeating was, "A story is about a character with a problem."
Not a person, mind you - although a character can be a person. But the stories we become most emotionally invested in are about a character we hook into, somebody we are willing to spend time with. We want to know if ET can phone home. If Scarlett O'Hara can save Tara from the carpetbaggers. If Elizabeth can get past her Prejudice and Mr. Darcy past his Pride.
This is what a lot of "plot-driven" movies and books are like:
Just a bunch of dressed up, identical figures being moved here, there, everywhere, by "the hand of God" as it were. Now this one is blonde, now that one is wearing pants instead of a skirt, but they are never really connected to the action.
If you're writing a screenplay, you're asking moviegoers to invest 2-3 hours of their lives with your imaginary people. A book - minimum 3-4 hours, probably more. Why would they want to spend it with flat, boring, colorless people?
This is why I'll never read another Dan Brown novel. Name three distinct or interesting things about his lead character (not Tom Hanks, but the character played by Tom Hanks.)
Yep, thought so.
There's a lot more to character than physical appearance, though that's helpful to know, too. Women should not all be Barbie dolls, interchangeable except for hair color, nor men tall and ruggedly handsome (except in genre romance, of course.) Is a man short with a taste for tall leggy blondes? How does that work for - and against him?
How about musical tastes? Any personal characteristic can be used to further the plot - remember in A Clockwork Orange, how the character of Alex (played by Malcolm McDowell) loved Beethoven and had it turned against him as a punishment?
As writers, our characters are our children, and we need to know everything about them. One helpful tool can be an organizer like this one.
|from Jeremy Robinson's Screenplay Workbook|
We can be surprised by what our characters reveal to us, "Wow, I never would have picked him to be a Catholic!" Or the adult child of an alcoholic. Or stocking his closet full of brown pants and blue shirts, a la Al Bundy, because someone once told him he looked good in blue.
Is our heroine struggling to get by, financially, dependent on an old car that's always breaking down? Allergic to cats? Envious of her gorgeous older sister? Trying to quit biting her nails? Even if not used as part of the plot, everything that we know about this character will help us write her as a rounded and full person.
The biggest payoff and interest comes about if the character's own strengths and weaknesses drive the plot.