A great main character is one of the most important components of great storytelling. If the audience doesn’t care about the main character, they won’t care about the outcome of the story. From a more “business” standpoint, great main characters draw stars and directors to your screenplay.
Today I want to look at six common elements of great main characters – three that relate to who the character is, and three more that are a little more subtle, but help explain why the first three are so important.
To illustrate my list, I’ll use three engaging but very different main characters from three very different types of movies: Indiana Jones from Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan), Amelie from the French movie Amelie (scenario by Guillaume Laurant and Jean-Peirre Jeunet, dialogue by Guillaume Laurant) and Theodore from Her (written by Spike Jonze)
1. Great characters are really good at something. Even if the character is a “loser,” they will still be really good at one thing. We like people who are talented, intelligent, resourceful, and/or heroic. Indiana Jones is fantastic at using a bullwhip, and incredibly resourceful at getting out of sticky situations. Theodore is one of the most romantic people in the world – so romantic he makes a living writing love letters for other people. Amelie is very clever – look at the complicated pranks she plays on the mean grocer and on her father, and the complex trail of clues she leaves for the man she’s attracted to. She also discovers she's quite good at helping other people, and makes that her mission in life.
2. Great characters are flawed. Despite being good at something, they also have at least one weakness, which makes them relatable and gives them room to grow. Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, and though he's tough, he's usually not the strongest guy in a fight. Amelie is shy and emotionally guarded, terribly afraid of having her heart broken. Theodore is having difficulty getting over his failed marriage.
3. Great characters want something badly within the story. Indiana Jones wants the ark. Amelie wants to find love before it's too late. Theodore wants Samantha. These wants are what drives the story forward, what ties the character to the plot.
Now the three more subtle traits:
4. Great characters are specific. The more specific a character, the more believable they are, and the more believable they are, the more we can relate to them. Indiana Jones is an archeologist who uses a bullwhip – not a common action hero type, but a unique and memorable hero. Amelie’s life is initially drawn by the movie's narrator through specific, minute details. Throughout the movie great care is taken to tell us exactly where thing are located, how long actions take, and how people are connected, among many other details. Theodore is similarly delineated through a specific, unique job and details about his lifestyle and relationships.
5. Great characters are complicated. This is why it’s important that they are both really good at something and flawed. Often complication comes from the contrast between their strengths, flaws and wants. Amelie wants love but is afraid of having her heart broken. Her flaw is her biggest obstacle to getting what she wants. Theodore loves Samantha, but also questions whether the relationship is genuine. He worries that he may be motivated to love an operating system because of his previous failure to stay married to a human woman. Indiana Jones wants the Ark but wrestles with his motivations and the value of what he does – is preserving history more important than saving Marion's life?
6. Great characters are active. We don’t want characters who simply experience events, we want characters who take action, driving the story. This is why it’s important the character wants something badly. This will motivate them to act – the way Indiana Jones is spurred to keep going despite multiple setbacks, because he really wants that Ark! Or the way Amelie finally overcomes her fears, or the way Theodore fights for his relationship with Samantha. This action can be reactive – the character may be minding their own business when something happens to them. But the character must then respond to that event actively.
If your main character is talented, flawed, motivated, specific, complicated and active, you have a good shot at a great main character.