When writing a screenplay, or a novel, you should have two objectives as you create characters: 1. Make them different to what we've seen before, but still recognisable, and 2. Make them distinctive from one another. Neither of these tasks is easy, but they are essential if you want your readers to emotionally engage with your story.
Here are a few quick tips to get you started on the right path.
Your first character- the hero
An effective way to find the best kind of hero for your story is to nail your concept first, and then ask yourself, "Who would be the worst person to solve this problem?"
Terrorists take people hostage? How about a selfish, irresponsible cop hero?
A killer shark eats people? How about an aqua-phobic sheriff hero?
A hero who can't lie for 24hrs? How about a lawyer who lies for a living?
This creates the kind of irony and drama that audiences love.
Looking for inspiration for your next story concept? Exploring other forms of art - paintings, music, poetry, plays, etc - are a great way to get the juices flowing. You can also have a twirl on a random-plot generator for a bit of fun.
Wounding your hero
See how the concept-first approach gives your hero a profession and a fear/flaw they need to correct during the film? Boom - instant drama.
But why do they have those fears/flaws? Something happened to them in their past that colours the way they see things, e.g. a loved one died; a husband cheated on them; they nearly drowned as a kid, etc. What happened to your hero?
How you choose to wound your hero will play a part in defining how the see the world. For some heroes, it is all-encompassing, like the Joker, but for others it acts as a scar that affects but doesn't necessarily dominate their personality.
Humans are complex creatures. We are a messy mix of innate and learned behaviour. The sum total of our biology, experiences and decisions. From that comes a handful of personality traits that shape us.
The simplest way to define any of your characters' personalities is to give them an archetypal role we can recognise, e.g. the Mentor, the Lover, the Creator, the Rebel. Each one acts like a prism through which they view all things, and thus how they problem-solve. Check out this massive list of archetypal characters if you're stuck for ideas.
NOTE: Archetypes are not just personality-definers. They also help define the function/role that a character plays in a story, but that's a topic for another post.
Want to dig deeper into personality traits and make your archetypes less cookie-cutter? Of course you do! Check out what I think of as a conveniently-organised writer's cheat-sheet by the Meyers-Briggs Foundation. Click on the infographic below for a more in-depth explanation of each type.
The character's opinion
The most memorable films are 'about' something, i.e. they have a subtle message about an aspect of life that's woven into the fabric of the story. It's demonstrated by the decisions, actions, and dialogue of the characters. Those are determined by the characters' opinions on the rightness or wrongness of the moral premise of the story.
What's a 'moral premise'? Is that like a theme? Well, yes and no, but that discussion is for another blog post. Suffice it to say, a moral premise is a statement about a way of looking at things that not everyone in your story is going to agree with. It should be the reason why you wrote the script in the first place, and it's the lesson that the hero needs to learn (and the bad guy fails to realise) Here are a couple of examples from my scripts:
The good of the many does not always come before the good of the few,
To heal, you must forgive the person who wounded you.
If you can figure out the moral premise of your story, and your hero/characters' opinions about it BEFORE you start writing, you will save yourself a ton of rewrites.
Background and physicality
A person's personality, opinions and wounds are not the only things that define them. Think about all the little things that make you and your friends/family who they are. You can borrow those traits and mix them up to make characters for your story. Just make sure that when you choose something it has a purpose, i.e. we will be able to see how that characteristic affects the story. Always ask yourself why is it so!
Where did they grow up - a big city, a small farm, a military base?
Do they have an accent?
Are they covered in tattoos?
Is their height, weight, hair colour important to the story?
Did they have a job in the past that shapes their fears/flaws/skills now?
That's it for now! Get writing on that screenplay!