According to The Scriptlab, the most important character in your screenplay is your protagonist: your hero. Without them, there is no story. Good stories are about character growth and change.
1) CREATE AN INTERESTING PROTAGONIST YOUR AUDIENCE WILL HOPE AND FEAR FOR
When creating your hero, audience connection is key. Your hero needs to be an interesting somebody who wants something badly and is having trouble getting it, and also a somebody that the audience cares about – somebody they hope will obtain the main objective but fear the goal will be thwarted – by external forces or by the hero him/herself.
2) SYMPATHY VS. EMPATHY
Creating a hero that we feel sympathetic toward is a huge help. It’s almost impossible not to care if we feel sorry for someone else’s misfortune, not to mention that sympathy often equates to likability – and a likeable hero is easy to hope and pray for. However, sympathy is not the essential ingredient. Empathy is the key. Not every hero is likeable or should be; there are many heroes (or antiheroes) that we dislike, but we stay with them because we’re able to understand why they do as they do.
3) ACTING BRAVELY
We love to see characters acting bravely, so it is not only what the character is trying to accomplish that makes us cheer for him or her, but it’s the lengths he/she is willing to go to get it. We fear protagonists will succumb to their weaknesses, but we hope that they will act bravely under extraordinary circumstances. There are few things more enjoyable for the audience than to see the ordinary protagonist thrust into an extraordinary situation and overcome insurmountable odds by simply just being brave.
4) KNOW YOUR MAIN CHARACTER
His/her dreams, wants and desires must be there on page one. Ask how we identify with, relate to, or are fascinated with him/her. This is more than just knowing the hero’s main objective –that is, the pursuit of what your protagonist is trying to accomplish that gives shape to plotting the main story of the film.
5) A CENTRAL CHARACTER CANNOT EXIST WITHOUT CONFLICT
Make sure you have enough obstacles (internal and external) that your character must face.
Right when the audience thinks it can’t get worse for your character(s), it gets worse; and when there is absolutely no way the situation can get more severe, it does; and finally, when there is no possibility things can deteriorate even more, it rains. It always rains. But the best conflict occurs because of a character’s own flaws: hubris, doubt, narcissism, jealousy, overconfidence, etc. because it is with the character’s own flaw(s) that will get him or her into even more trouble, and self-induced trouble is a recipe for success.
6) YOUR MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVE A WEAKNESS
They are often oblivious of these weaknesses, or in denial, or constantly trying to hide from themselves.
Just as the best villains are the ones who are layered and complex – bad guys in whom the audience can empathize with – the same rule applies to your hero. When your hero is truly “good” in all situations, he is set and stony and not very interesting. We have no reason to fear for him because we know he will always do the right thing. However, if you establish early on that your hero has weaknesses (hopefully many), then it’s easy for your audience to fear.
7) ATTACK YOUR CHARACTER AT THEIR WEAKEST SPOT
Hit your hero at his or her weakest spots, because when you corner your characters they will reveal things about themselves that you never even knew existed. And when characters are forced to reveal things they are unwilling to share – deep secrets and psychological scars – conflict is abundant, rich with emotion, and those are the scenes we want to see.
8) CHARACTER AWARENESS
Every action has a reaction, and nothing is as easy as it seems. The reality is that situations are complicated, especially what’s beneath the surface, and even though it is obvious that your hero must be aware of the main objective, it is usually a mistake if your hero is aware of the full dimensions of the theme at the beginning of the story. It’s okay for your audience to see the big picture (or not); sometimes you want your audience to discover along with your hero. But regardless of the creative decisions you make as to what the audience knows and when, it is important that your hero learns along the way. The theme – and its implications – should be revealed on your hero’s journey.
9) THINK OF YOUR MAIN CHARACTER UNFAVORABLY
This can take some practice, especially if you really love your character, but try to think of your protagonist unfavorably. The application of this approach will make them very real – because we all know that real people are incredibly flawed and do some pretty ugly things.
Make sure your characters learn as they go. How do they change? What do they learn? How are they becoming someone different? Someone better?
By the end of his or her journey, your hero should be different because of the experience. If you don’t show the possibility of moral transformation or an increase in wisdom in your protagonist(s), there really is no point in writing the screenplay at all, because one of the most fundamental human principles is that human beings do have the capacity to change. This is the character arc. Knowledge is growth, but acting upon that knowledge is change. You need at least one.