In his book, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter of UCLA reminds us that there are three fundamental rules for writing great characters:
1. Introduce a scintilla of sympathy even into your most evil of characters.
2. Force your characters, especially your protagonist, to change and grow throughout the story.
3. Avoid stereotypes.
Let’s start with the last point first: Stereotypes are characters that are predictable through type. Avoid them at all times. The kind priest? Already met him. The hard-drinking Irishman? Him too. The pissed off police captain? Ditto.
A useful way to avoid stereotyping a character is to think of a type then write the opposite. Imagine a sheriff from the deep south who is not bigoted and stupid, but is bristling with intelligence and dignity, passionate about revealing the truth and dishing out an even-handed justice. Or a nun who is a baseball fanatic and is an expert at game statistics.
“If our story lacks great characters, if we despise them through and through, especially the protagonist, we will dislike the story they inhabit.”
Truly memorable characters start off in one place and end up in another. In Kramer vs. Kramer, Dustin Hoffman begins as an insensitive, selfish narcissist but ends up as a wise father who puts the happiness of his child first. At the start of The Godfather, Michael Corleone is innocent, principled, moral. By the end he is heartless, bereaved and soulless—a power hungry murderer of many, including his own brother.
Not every character needs to change, of course. Patton stays the same throughout the movie of the same name, although his character is challenged and explained in a way that reveals to us why he is the way he is—an inflexible but powerful warrior to the last.
Well-rounded, complex and conflicted characters are more absorbing than facile, boring ones. But with the interest that comes from lying, scheming and conniving comes the danger of characters becoming unlikable. It is, therefore, important to ensure that some aspect remains sympathetic to the reader or audience.
Oedipus murders his father then performs incest with his mother: horrific actions for a protagonist to indulge in. The writer, Sophocles, ensures that Oedipus remains sympathetic to his audience firstly by showing that Oedipus is unaware of the true facts of his coupling, and, secondly, by having him show deep and genuine remorse upon learning the truth.
In a Bridge on the River Kwai the Japanese commander of the prison camp is a cruel tyrant whose humanity still manages to peep through, if even only once. He violates international laws, holds his prisoners in hot boxes, tortures and humiliates them, yet the writer portrays him as an unfortunate wretch who is tapped in a harsh command structure by permitting us to see him weep.
Great characters are an indispensable part of successful stories. Avoiding stereotypes, injecting character growth, and creating sympathy are some of the ways of creating such characters.