1. Craft Conflicting Priorities
Audiences love to see characters under pressure. A moment of conflicting goals will create a tough choice that dramatically changes the outcome of a story. Let’s say you have a cop who wants to save lives and uphold the law. Should they pursue a criminal who kills two people to save a hundred more? Highlight the cop’s internal conflict as they go to a friend or parent for advice, waver back and forth, and then hesitate at a critical moment.
Look for dilemmas that will set your character apart. If your hero gives up pursuing the villain to save someone who’s injured, that just makes them like every other hero. However, if the hero is given a command that is clearly unethical, but follows it anyway because they trust the person who gave it to them, it tells the audience a lot about them.
2. Show Quirky Behavior
A little novelty can go a long way. Choose a quirky detail about your character, one that will change how they behave in small ways and add entertainment to your scenes. Maybe your character collects gravel from each street in town, or folds origami during meetings. Don’t let the quirk become so important that your character seems silly, but make it noticeable.
Your audience will dismiss this characteristic for the novelty it is – until the moment it impacts the story. Few things are more satisfying than witnessing something meaningless become relevant. If your hero solves a mystery by comparing the gravel in someone’s shoe to her personal collection or sends secret messages by putting them in innocent-looking origami, your audience will remember.
3. Cause a Break in Temperament
A good starting place for creating characters is temperament. Is your character cheery, cool-headed, or passionate? No one exhibits the same emotion wherever they go, but most people are inclined toward some over others. Your character could be the type that never cries, never laughs, or never gets angry. So when they do cry, laugh, or get angry, it’ll be a moment to remember.
Set this up carefully. First, establish the character’s temperament. Show how they don’t cry or laugh when the audience would expect them to. Contrast them with other characters that behave how the audience would expect. Then design an event that will really impact them. Be creative; maybe your stoic character laughs not from humor, but from desperation.
Last, your audience must understand why your character is exhibiting atypical behavior, or they’ll think it’s out-of-character. This will be easier if you’re writing from the character’s point of view, because you can show their thoughts.
4. Provide a Change of Heart
Your character’s arc isn’t done until they’ve changed as a person. For most of us, the hardest part of changing is recognizing when we’re wrong. That’s why it makes spectacular scenes. For one moment, a character sets aside their pride, lowers their guard, and becomes vulnerable. Everyone in the audience can relate to that.
A character that changes their mind can also move the story in new and exciting directions. An aimless tale can become riveting as the hero finally realizes why they’ve failed before and transforms their behavior. In their resolve to right the wrongs, they could become more proactive, setting a trap for the bad guys or rebuilding what they destroyed. This not only develops your character but provides great plot twists.
5. Echo Who They Were
Storytellers love creating backstories for their characters. Regardless of whether your character’s backstory is mundane or dramatic, they’ll exhibit traces of the person they used to be. Pivotal experiences will color how they view the present; old habits die hard.
While the audience might enjoy the surprise of learning the prim butler was once part of a street gang, it will never be as interesting as watching how gang member and butler have merged together. Does the butler keep a pair of brass knuckles in their pocket? Do they hide weapons around the house in case of a home invasion? Once the audience sees this interesting behavior, learning the history won’t just be surprising; it will click into place.
This also works without the surprise. If your audience watches the character transform from one person to another, witnessing how they incorporate their past into their current life will bring the story together in a satisfying way.
6. Bring Their Dark Side to Light
Most heroes have an external antagonist – a villain or monster that tries to harm them or prevent them from accomplishing their goals. Double the conflict by giving your hero inner demons to fight. Perhaps they crave a super drug that makes them invincible but causes them to endanger others. Maybe they’ve given up combat because they can’t control their bloodlust. Then when the external antagonist turns up the heat, the hero will turn in desperation to what they hate most. Will Dr. Jekyll become Mr. Hyde if it means saving the city?
Giving your character a dark side not only encourages you to build your character in multiple dimensions but also provides a story reason to explore those dimensions with your audience. By struggling with their demons, your character will be forced to discover who they are.
The best characters are dynamic. Over the course of the story they’ll shift tactics or express a new facet of their personality, while they are slowly pressed and pulled into someone different. By showcasing the dynamic nature of your characters in plot-relevant ways, you’ll delight your audience with continuous discovery.