Every character must be memorable in some way. The simplest way to define a character is by their appearance.
Are they big or skinny? Do they belong to a specific ethnicity? Do they wear their hair or clothes a certain way? In most cases, the character’s appearance isn’t that important because a casting directory might choose another actor who doesn’t fit your original idea.
In “The Graduate,” Benjamin, the hero, was originally was supposed to be a tall blond man. Instead, the casting director selected Dustin Hoffman, who was a short, dark haired man. Since you have little control over the actor who plays the roles of your characters, physical description is the weakest way to define a character.
A second way to define a character is by what they do. A mayor will act and dress differently than someone who works in sewer pipes. Likewise, someone who works for a prestigious law firm will look and act differently than someone working by themselves in a dingy law office.
Physical appearances and occupation are the baseline for defining a character, but even then, there are variations within an occupation. Is someone an honest politician or a corrupt one? Does someone love their job or do they see their work as interfering with what they really want to do with their lives?
In other words, there may be lawyers, accountants, athletes, or police officers, but what makes your character different from all the other lawyers, accountants, athletes, or police officers in the world? Define this difference and accent it to further reflect that character’s personality.
More importantly than physical appearance or occupation is action. What does the character do to reflect their personality? Does a well-dressed man peek in a garbage can for empty bottles to return? That says something about that man’s past that might show he was poor at one time or simply is stingy.
Characters shouldn’t just walk, eat, or drive their car like everyone else. They need to have personality that defines who they are by their actions. Do they walk into a room with confidence like James Bond entering a room? Or are they shy and uncertain? Remember, actions paint a visual image of a character so paint that image well.
Besides the character’s own action, show how other people respond to that character. Are they afraid of him or her? Do they respect him or her? Do they barely notice him or her? How other people respond to a character can further reveal who that character might be.
So the multiple layers for defining character are:
- Physical appearance
- Reactions from other characters
By using multiple layers to paint your character, you can insure that your characters aren’t generic people but fully defined people who will stick in memory long after their stories are told.