Making Characters Memorable

What bad movies do is they focus solely on the hero. This creates a flat, one-dimensional story. Better movies focus on multiple characters with multiple storylines. Then the movie becomes far more interesting as the various storylines intertwine and eventually resolve themselves at the end.

Look at the original “Die Hard” to see how each major character has a goal of their own:

  • Hero — John McClane just wants to get back with his wife
  • Villain — Hans Gruber wants to steal corporate bonds from a vault and blow up the hostages on the roof to create chaos so he can his henchmen can escape
  • Mentor — Officer Powell just wants to gain the courage to draw his gun again
  • Ally — Holly McClane wants to get back with her husband again
  • Henchman — Terrorist who vows revenge on John McClane for killing his brother

Now look at any of the much weaker “Die Hard” sequels and you’ll notice that fewer and fewer of the other characters have goals of any kind. Instead, the story revolves mostly around the hero with much weaker motivation for any of the other characters. The more the story focuses only on the hero, the weaker and more diluted the story gets.

Watch any bad sequel and you’ll see this lack of focus and multiple storylines. There’s a huge difference between “Jaws” and “Jaws 4: The Revenge.” Even though both are about a man-eating shark, the vast differences between the two are immense. “Jaws” is suspenseful. “Jaws 4: The Revenge” is simply ludicrous with a roaring shark that can jump out of the water and bring down a helicopter, and later stays out of the water, standing on its tail so a slow moving sail boat can steer right into it and impale it. Really?

What makes any story better is when the other main characters not only have their own goals, but also have unique characteristics that makes them memorable in their own right.

The free-wheeling, hip, streetwise limousine driver in “Die Hard” is definitely a character. Despite being a minor character, he’s still memorable for not being deferential like a typical limousine driver but more of a talkative extrovert. Another memorable character is Holly, the hero’s wife. Not only is she attractive, but she’s also courageous as well by confronting the villain directly in asking for bathroom breaks. When the villain sarcastically asks who put her in charge, she responds, “You did. When you killed my boss.”

Quentin Tarantino tends to popular his movies with memorable characters as well. In “Django: Unchained,” the villain (named Candie) runs a brutal plantation cheerfully known as Candie Land. He’s a refined Southern gentleman with a cruel streak. In “Inglorious Basterds,” the Jew Hunter is a clever Nazi officer who relishes hunting and killing Jews like a battle of wits.

Another movie filled with memorable characters is “The Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” which is about a boy in New Zealand who gets adopted by an older couple. The man is grumpy and doesn’t like the boy, but the woman is overly cheerful to the point of singing a horrible birthday song for the boy as she endears herself to him with her enthusiasm and love.

Later, the boy runs into a talkative girl who keeps making up lies for fun before immediately telling the truth, and who can’t stop talking. Although she appears briefly, this overly talkative girl is extremely memorable and unique.

The villain in “The Hunter for the Wilderpeople” is a woman in charge of child protective services. In her zeal to protect children, she’s willing to do whatever it takes to hurt and punish them where her motto is “No child left behind. Dead or alive.”

So the lesson is clear. Don’t create generic, bland characters. Make each character unique and compelling in their own way that makes them someone you’d want to meet at a party because they’re so interesting. The more outrageously lovable you make your characters, the more audiences will care about how they are as real people and not as one-dimensional, stereotypical puppets who exist solely to advance the plot and disappear.

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