Your main characters should always be interesting in some way. That doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be likable, but that they need to grab our attention in a way we can admire and respect.
In “Die Hard,” the villain, Hans Gruber, is simply the leader of an armed gang of well-trained thieves. What makes him interesting is his intelligence by planning for every possible situation, his coolness under pressure, his ruthlessness in killing people who get in his way, and his sense of humor when he makes a list of demands that mean nothing. When one of his own co-conspirators asks him about one of his demands for freeing a terrorist, Hans calmly replies he read about it in a magazine.
Because Hans is so fascinating, it’s easy to stay motivated to watch what he does and how he’ll do it. More importantly, knowing what Hans is capable of doing makes his inevitable conflict with John McClane (the hero) even more interesting because now we have two interesting characters clashing in the final battle.
“Creed” follows the “Rocky” formula in doing the same thing. The hero (Creed) is a fascinating character who’s struggling to make a name for himself as a boxer without his father’s famous name being a burden to him. That’s why he fights in little known matches in Mexico. Then we learn about hims approaching Rocky for help in becoming a better boxer.
The villain in “Creed” is a loud mouth Irishman who is vicious and arrogant. We may not like him, but he’s definitely memorable. During any meetings, this Irishman is loud and boisterous, cutting off Creed every time he talks use to insult him one more time. He’s a memorable character because he’s flamboyant, which is exactly how Apollo Creed behaved in the original “Rocky.”
In “Little Miss Sunshine,” there are plenty of secondary characters, but they all have unique characteristics of their own. The hero, Olive, is an innocent, chubby girl intent on competing in a beauty pageant. Her grandfather cusses profusely, snorts cocaine, and speaks his mind, which usually means complaining about everything. Yet he shows clear affection for Olive.
Olive’s brother has taken a vow of silence and angrily writes notes to people. Olive’s father is a failed motivational speaker with optimism and desperation. Olive’s mother is perhaps the blandest of the lot, which means she’s the least memorable character of all.
Memorable characters make any story more interesting. That’s why people still remember John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson talking about cheeseburgers in “Pulp Fiction.” Both are unique and interesting characters. They’re not just bland people, but someone you have an interesting in studying.
Think of your own screenplay characters as people in a mall or airport. What would make someone want to eavesdrop and spy on them? Is it how they act? Talk? Behave among others? With your own major characters, ask yourself how they look, how they speak, and how they behave, and make all of this interesting somehow.
In “Pulp Fiction,” the dialogue about cheeseburgers is trivial, but the two characters don’t look like ordinary people because they well dressed, yet they cuss like mad. They’re obviously friends, but one talks about Europe and the other isn’t quite sure he believes him. They have strong opinions and it makes both interesting because of what they say and how they say it. In short, they’re easy and fun to watch.
Don’t create generic characters that could appear in any story. Customize your characters so they could only appear in your story. Think of your favorite actor/actress and imagine how they would play your character, and then base your character on how a real person would play that character.
By visualizing a real person as a character, you’ll be able to inject a little bit of uniqueness that will make that character more memorable than a generic person who nobody cares about.