Character is what character does.
Tattoo that on your forehead - in reverse, so that it's the first thing you'll read every morning in the mirror:
CHARACTER IS WHAT CHARACTER DOES.
Or, if you only have a little forehead:
CHARACTER IS ACTION.
I stumbled across this one when I'd been directing a 'method' actor. Every day, right up until dress rehearsal, he'd come up to me and say, 'I'm having problems with my character - I'm just not getting my character.'
Resisting the urge to beat him to a pulp (it's only acting, for crying out loud!) I realised I needed an answer to this one. How do we delineate and define character? How do we measure character? What is the essence of character?
Then it came to me. We judge a person by their actions. Actions, as they say, speak louder than words.
When I'm teaching screenwriting, I always illustrate the point this way. To my admiring students, I say 'You no doubt look on me as the fount of all wisdom. I could tell you anything and the chances are you'd believe me. I could present myself as the coolest man in Christendom. Nothing fazes me. My pulse rate never wavers. I am sang froid incarnate ...
'But what happens if a fire breaks out, or a man-eating tiger bursts into the room? If I manfully tackle the flames, or position myself between the class and the tiger crying "Women and children first!" then maybe I've been telling the truth. Maybe I do deserve a medal. But if I'm the first one out of the window, then much of what I told you was a lie. I'm not brave at all. In fact, I'm a terrible coward.'
It's not what I say that makes me who I am - it's what I do.
The same goes for characters in a script. Actors, take note: if you don't really 'get' your character, look at what your character DOES. That'll tell you what your character IS.
Characters are often a major let down in scripts and screenplays. Too often, they seem hollow, two-dimensional, only there to serve the plot. I've read countless scripts in which the protagonist has a bit of character, there's a character in there who (surprisingly) stands out, but is not a very important character, and the rest are ciphers. They have no real existence.
In order to create rounded, believable characters some writers fall back on an elaborate system. I was once working on a project (treatment stage - yuck!) when a colleague presented me with his 'tried and trusted' character questionnaire. It was about two pages long and consisted of all sorts of questions: This character likes ... / This character doesn't like ... / This character is least likely to say ... / and so on.
Now, this really is screenwriting for dummies. It's just like those games actors play ('If my character was a car, what car would my character be?') which, though they help to pass the time, have very little bearing on performance. Knowing what your character had for breakfast this morning is of limited value. Hamlet might well have had a bowl of cornflakes, but what the feck has that got to do with anything?
In the case of actors, they often do this sort of thing because they're not very good at reading maps. Sorry, I mean scripts. Same thing, really. All the necessary information is present in the script, but actors aren't very good at spotting it, or they don't trust it, so they make a load of stuff up.
By the way, I trained as an actor. I know their little ways.
A writer can dispense with all that character questionnaire crap. Let's remember that the main character - the 'hero' - requires two things, an OBJECTIVE and an OBSTACLE, to make their story come alive.
Well, the same goes for all your other characters. They, too, need their objectives and obstacles. Characters fall flat in scripts because they don't seem to want anything. They're just there, in the way.
In reality, each of us is the lead character in our own story. We all of us have our objectives and our obstacles.
Make your characters real by making sure that they want something, even if it's a small and simple thing, and that they have something that's obstructing them, just like your hero does.
If you do that - mentally - don't put it all in the script, just know that it's there - then every encounter between characters in your script instantly becomes richer. Think about it: every encounter we have in real life involves at least two people who, individually and separately, want things that something's preventing them from acquiring. So every encounter is a negotiation (i.e., will this person help me or hinder me? Have I got time to deal with their problems?) And, similarly, if every character in your script has their own, individual, natural objective or desire, and is fighting, successfully or unsuccessfully, against their own personal obstacles, then what you're creating is a little world of competing interests - which is just what real life is, really.
There's more to come on character. But always remember, characters can lie, but their actions tend to reveal the truth.
Make your hero active. Make sure that your hero sets out to achieve the objective and takes arms, one way or another, against a sea of obstacles. We all like active heroes.
And make sure that every other character is following his/her/its own agenda. They have their own desires, their own problems.
And make sure that they DO things. Because character is what character does.
Character is action.