A Trick For Creating Memorable Characters


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by Naomi Write + Co. in character, screenwriting

James Bond. Miriam Maisel. Melvin Udall. Erin Brockovich. Travis Bickle. Lisbeth Salander. Jason Bourne. Katniss Everdeen. Captain Jack Sparrow. Nurse Ratched. Ron Burgundy. Elle Woods.

If you’ve met them even once, they conjure vividly, easily.

Because they’re such memorable characters.

Would you like a character that memorable in your screenplay?

Sure you would. Anything that can make your screenplay stand out from others (in a good way, of course) is something to aim for. Not to mention that compelling, dynamic characters capture the audience’s attention, paving the way to become emotionally invested.

Today I have a trick to share with you that may help you create your next great memorable character.

But first, let’s zoom out and talk about creating characters more generally.

Creating realistic characters

When writers aim to create memorable characters, sometimes the instinct is to make them weird, oddball types. And sometimes? That can work, i.e. the ol’ “limp and an eyepatch” that Blake talked about.

However, a limp and an eyepatch works best under certain conditions. It can help spice up a boring minor character, someone we’re not going to spend too much time with. But the more important to the story and the more time we’re going to spend with a character, the more depth and development they need. (Otherwise we stop seeing them as believable, get bored, and check out.)

You want your central characters to be complex – well rounded, not flat. Complexity makes a character more believable (because they’re truer to what we’ve experienced in life), and more compelling. All of which helps us more easily invest in them emotionally, and root for them to succeed.

But how do you create a complex, believable, compelling character?

One thing I’ll suggest is to get familiar with the Big Five personality traits, and design your characters with them in mind.

What are the Big Five personality traits – and how can you use them in your writing?

Long story short, two psychology researchers, Costa & McCrae, developed a personality inventory that examines a person’s Big Five personality traits. These five dimensions of personality are:

  • openness to experience
  • conscientiousness
  • extroversion
  • agreeableness, and
  • neuroticism

(The labels are self-explanatory enough for our discussion so I won’t go into explaining each trait here, but there’s plenty to learn and use in your writing – I encourage you to dive in if this interests you.)

Costa & McCrae’s research demonstrates that our complex personalities can be summed up via these five dimensions and how we express them. Basically, these five traits form the core of character and describe who we are and how we’re likely to behave. We each land somewhere on the spectrum of each of these five traits.

So, you can use the Big Five to get a good start on designing a well-rounded, believable character. Think about where your character lands in each of these dimensions, make some deliberate choices, and then keep those in mind as you’re planning, writing, and rewriting. (Maybe even use the index card trick to keep them in front of you.)

But how do you make a character memorable?

Complex, believable characters are great. If you can write them consistently, you’re already ahead of the pack.

But what if you’ve mastered that skill and now you’re aiming for a strong, memorable character in your screenplay. One that will not only impress readers and stand out to audiences, but may also help attract talent and investors. How do you achieve that extra level?

If we again refer to real life, one way a person can make a lasting impression is by behaving in some way that’s not the norm. People who do things in an usual way stand out, and if it’s very unusual then it’s more likely to be memorable. When I think about memorable characters, this seems true as well.

Which makes sense, right? Our brains are wired to pay attention to change, or what’s different in our environment. So if we see someone behaving in ways that are unlike others, unlike the average person we meet, then they stand out and we’re more likely to remember them.

Using the Big Five personality traits to make a character memorable

So, if we go back to the Big Five and consider that most people will land somewhere in the middle of the bell curve on any given trait, a memorable person might land where others don’t. Meaning, at either end of the spectrum.

Could you create a memorable character by choosing one (maybe two) of the Big Five traits and taking it to the extreme? Letting that define your character’s personality and behavior? I think you could.

Let’s look at some examples:

If you chose “Extroversion” as the trait you’re dialing up or down, you might get Mrs. Maisel (very extroverted), or Lisbeth Salander (very introverted).

Or, take “Agreeableness”. A memorably agreeable character might be Andy Stitzer from 40-Year-Old Virgin. At the other end of that spectrum – very disagreeable – could be Walt Kowalski from Gran Torino, or Mildred Hayes from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri.

Remember, we’re talking about dialing these traits up or down past the average range. This trick is about making a character stand out from the crowd, and to do that they need to be different from the crowd. My guess is the further outside the norm, the more memorable that character (or at least that trait of the character) would be.

You’d still want to address the other dimensions, too, particularly if you’re designing one of your central characters. If you give a character just one extreme trait, that’s basically a limp and an eyepatch. Without any other depth or development, it’ll feel more like a gimmick than a believable character.

Again, you want well-rounded, not flat. And that means thinking about how they show up in all of those dimensions that make up a character’s core, as well as developing other aspects of the character like motivations, beliefs, and emotional stakes.

Your screenplay’s characters

Writing consistently compelling and believable characters is a skill every screenwriter should endeavor to master. And creating a truly memorable character might be just the calling card a particular script needs to get noticed.

You don’t want to overwhelm your screenplay making every character memorable, of course. Because memorable is relative. If everyone stands out then no one stands out. Really, you want to direct our focus to what’s important in the story — the central characters, and perhaps the protagonist most of all.

But with that in mind, the Big Five can be a tool to help you create complex, realistic characters — and maybe even stand-out, memorable characters — in your screenplays because it reflects the main dimensions of personality that we’re used to encountering in the real world (and that we recognize in ourselves).

My challenge to you:

  • Explore the Big Five. See if you can determine which (if any) of the five dimensions other memorable characters represent the extreme of.
  • Try using the Big Five to design a memorable character by choosing one trait to dial up or down. Remember to develop the character’s complexity by also thinking about the other dimensions.

And if you do take me up on either of these challenges, I’d love to hear what you come up with.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.