It’s one of the most important aspects of telling a good story: creating a cast of well drawn characters that will engage with audiences, causing them to care about what happens to them. You can have stunning cinematography, or the most fast-paced and action-packed story, filled with brilliantly choreographed fight scenes, but without strong characters, the chances are it will leave viewers empty, and they might as well be watching someone playing a video game.
As with many things in screenwriting and filmmaking as a whole, it’s not an exact science. There will be many films that looked promising on the page, but bombed at the box office. However, one of the best ways to create three dimensional characters is to give them a rich backstory.
I’ve heard it said that you won’t use most of this material in the actual story, but it will all help to create characters that actually feel like real people, rather than just stereotypes that spout dialogue that doesn’t come from anything authentic. It will then give the impression that they are two dimensional and interchangeable, to the point where any line could be spoken by any character.
To start with, it’s helpful to think up names for your characters that fit both the individual characters themselves, and the world in which the story is taking place. There are plenty of websites that provide tips on how to come up with names for your characters, and how this is influenced by things like genre, age of the characters, location and the time period of the story. As an example, giving a young character an old fashioned name could work if you have in mind a character who is quite quirky and individual, so a slightly archaic name will help bring out these qualities more clearly.
Another important detail is your characters goals and motivations. It’s worth writing out some sort of a profile for your characters (especially the principle characters) that includes what each character is trying to achieve. It will help to create a more compelling story if some of your protagonists are trying to achieve contrasting goals, or if they want the same thing, but have drastically different ideas about how to get there.
Giving your characters a biography will also help. So sketch out details on family, friends, schools, universities, colleges, etc, as well as their work history. What hobbies do they have? Do they speak any foreign languages? Do they have any phobias? What hopes and dreams do they have? No detail should be too large or two small to consider. Now, most of this material won’t make it into the actual story, which may make you wonder: is it not just a waste of time?
Think of it like this: when creating a character, you’re creating someone who should feel like a real person. Real people have goals, things they hope for and fear, family history, friends, hobbies, past traumas and things that motivate them. These things shape us, our character and behaviour. The more this is true of your fictional creations, the more realistic they will feel, no matter how fantastical the story might be. When that happens, your audience will feel like they are watching real people, and care about where they are when the credits roll.