One way to engage audiences is through characters. Audiences enjoy getting to know the characters, building up to an “ah ha” moment, when the audience understands a little more about who the character is, and how that relates to the story as a whole.
There are many ways to reveal character, and they divide into first impressions, second hand information, and the inner workings of a character.
Physical appearance may be one of the first things people notice, but it’s often the least important. The clothing someone wears and the items they carry speak to the type of life they live, but a character’s physical characteristics (height, weight, hair color, etc.) are more likely to reveal how others treat a character. Mostly physical descriptions are another shorthand for identifying characters, in lieu of names, or in addition to them. The key is to keep it to a few physical characteristics; approximate age, gender, general body shape, and perhaps 1-2 unique characteristics beyond that.
When establishing a character’s appearance, root it in the scene. If it’s a reference to hair color, have the character play with it, or push it out of the way. If someone is tall, put them in a small room, make them stoop down. Watch for situations where a physical characteristic is an advantage or disadvantage.
2. Words, Actions, and Mannerisms
When Indiana Jones first steps onto the screen in Raiders of the Lost Ark, he barely says a word, but audiences quickly know who he is from how he carries himself. He’s careful, confident, and calm in the face of danger, flashing a wry smile so that audiences know he has a sense of humor.
When Harry Potter first steps out of his cupboard he’s taciturn, quietly obeying his aunt and uncle’s instructions, but in the next scene he sympathizes with a caged animal. He hasn’t said anything about himself, but it’s clear to the audience that Harry is a humble character, grateful for what he’s received, enduring his family’s hostility as best he can.
How a person acts, and reacts, is one of the most accurate representations of who they are. Whether a character politely asks or aggressively grabs, whether they are clumsy or careful, all of these things are immediate signs of who a character is.
3. Knowledge & Abilities
Stories are all about conflict, and how a character engages a conflict can reveal a lot about them. Whether it’s through knowledge or skills, these contributions represent a significant investment of time and energy. They create questions for the audience to follow, piecing together the answers over the course of the story.
Skills are particularly useful for minor characters, who are often defined by their role. A few additional skills can help hint at a unique character without slowing the story down. A character skilled at knots might learn the skill for any number of reasons, but what if they also know how to make a fire, and recognize trees from their leaves or bark? Each piece of information narrows the range of possibilities, creating a sense of the fully realized character who happens to have a minor role in this story.
When creating a character to fill a role, or adding skills/knowledge to a character, consider where, how, and why they learned these skills or knowledge. What else might they have learned at the same time, or for the same reasons? Some things will be learned intentionally, while others will be by accident.