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How to Write Memorable Characters

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by Naomi in character, screenwriting
screenwriting blog writing memorable characters in your screenplay

One question I hear asked a lot is how to write great characters. Not surprisingly, that’s a tough target to aim for. What makes a character compelling is somewhat subjective and intangible.

A great character is entertaining. Fascinating, whether we like them or not. Makes us curious. Somehow makes us want to follow them through the story. And, if they really hit those marks, sticks with us after the movie’s over. A really stand-out character is likely to be memorable.

Memorable is a little more concrete, isn’t it? Let’s aim there.

What is memorable?

Something is memorable when it’s “worth remembering or easily remembered, especially because of being special or unusual.” In other words, it takes up mental real estate. It can’t be filed away with other things that are very similar; it’s special or unusual enough to earn its own space.

And a character probably lasts in your memory when what’s special about them goes beyond surface traits to become meaningful. When what’s “special or unusual” about the character activates the story, rather than being tacked on for the sake of standing out.

The theory of memorable characters

As writers we create characters primarily through their:

  • Behavior and choices
  • Dialogue
  • Point of View / Attitude / Philosophy (the internal stuff that’s conveyed through the other two)

In the characters we remember most, these three things overlap and combine in ways that activate the story and that are “special or unusual” enough to grab some of our mental real estate.

Memorable characters in your screenplay

Theory is great, but what does this mean for your screenplay? How can we use the tools at our disposal to create memorable characters? Here are some patterns I’ve noticed**:

1. A fascinating dichotomy or juxtaposition

Sometimes there’s a character dichotomy or juxtaposition that fascinates us. It’s usually a character’s behavior or point of view in contrast with their surroundings or circumstances. When this juxtaposition activates the story by creating conflict the character must navigate, it becomes meaningful.

Examples:

  • Forrest Gump: His total guilelessness contrasts with basically everything, including the momentous historical events he becomes a part of. That juxtaposition is at the core of the concept, and plays into how he navigates the story and changes those around him.
  • Will (Good Will Hunting): His off-the-charts I.Q. is unexpected with his hardscrabble upbringing and environment. The conflict this creates in his life is a big factor in the story.
  • Marge Gunderson (Fargo): Her Midwestern sincerity is juxtaposed against the crime she’s investigating. This is entertaining along the way and plays into how she solves the crime.
  • Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs): The juxtaposition between his brilliance and the violence of his actions is fascinating, and informs how he navigates the story.

2. An unusual way of expressing themselves

Sometimes a character has a “special or unusual” way of expressing their thoughts, feelings, or world view. When that method of expression activates the story in some way, it’s more than just surface characterization.

Examples:

  • John Wick: A man of few words and lots of violence.
  • Erin Brockovich: She’s brash and defensive, and it’s part and parcel of her character arc.
  • Anton Chigurh (No Country For Old Men): A killer who sees himself as a hand of fate, he is remorseless but not random or purposeless. He often offers his victims a chance to survive through a deal or the flip of a coin.
  • Elle Woods (Legally Blonde): Yes, there’s contrast in play here too (a ditzy blonde goes to Harvard Law). But what I remember most about Elle Woods is her distinct point of view and the tenacity with which she expresses it.

3. A compelling way of pursuing a goal

What they do and how they do it combine to entertain and fascinate us. When that combination is “special and unusual” and is used in their pursuit of the story goal, it makes the character memorable.

Examples:

  • Lou Bloom (Nightcrawler): Informed by a unique world view, he pursues his career aspirations in a special way unlike most others we’ve seen before.
  • Indiana Jones and James Bond: Their unique styles are both all over their surface characterizations, as well as baked into the way they approach their stories and the types of actions we can expect each of them to take.
  • Clarice Starling (The Silence of the Lambs): Her toughness and ambition inform the way she goes after her goal, by courting a brilliant, violent psychopath and defying what others believe she’s capable of.
  • Michael Dorsey / Dorothy Michaels (Tootsie) and Mrs. Doubtfire: Two men in women’s clothes, sure, but also a manifestation of their unique approaches to solving their story problems.
  • Leonard (Memento): A guy with amnesia who doggedly searches for his wife’s killer in spite of that handicap. The way he uses the affliction as a means to his own end makes him memorable.
  • Both Andrew and Fletcher (Whiplash): Two characters whose desires take them to extremes. Of these two, Fletcher is probably the stand-out character. If you’ve read the script or seen the movie, you can likely easily recall his behavior and the questions it raises over how right or wrong his philosophy might be.

This list is subjective! What makes an impression on me may not be the same for you. But I hope these observations give you a starting point to think about what does make an impression on you.

When developing your characters, think about how you can design and combine their behavior, choices, dialogue, and philosophy to be “special and unusual” beyond what’s come before. And how those things can inform the story so they create real meaning – and a lasting impression.


**The caveat I wanted to include, but just slowed things down: It can be tough to separate out truly memorable characters from those who are recognizable because we’ve been exposed to them over time, or because the actor creates familiarity in our minds. There are stories and performances I love that didn’t make the list because I felt the character itself wasn’t so unique or different as to set them apart from all others. (This is also not an exhaustive list!) I’ve tried to choose examples that I would personally vouch for as being memorable after one read of the script or one viewing of the movie.

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