In some ways, writing is an awful lot like covert operations. There are a lot of little pieces that all have to work together in order to get a good result: you have some talent, a goal in mind, knowledge, skill, a plot framework and most importantly, characters.
What's a story without characters, right? You can almost get by without a plot (though it's highly inadvisable – even I, expert that I am, wouldn't dare try it) but try to write without characters and your story, like a bad disguise, goes kerflop.
In order to write about your characters, though, you've got to get to know them. They're your friends, your kids, they get on your nerves and are your constant companions. If you don't know your characters, your story is going to feel forced and your reader is going to feel like an outsider.
So how do you get to know those crazy people running around your head? Here are a few ideas:
- Character Interviews
Yes, I know, everyone suggests these. Let me tell you though, when I have to impersonate someone, I do my best to get to know them. Go beyond the basics with these – don't just ask the standard questions like name, appearance, greatest fears/strengths, or personality (although those are a great place to start). Start fleshing them out – what are their little quirks? For example, my protagonist sits with her feet up as much as she can because she hates the feeling of having her feet dangle over the floor. Pick some things that fit their person and toss them into the story to make them feel more real. If you can come up with a motivation for the quirks, even better!
I have to play roles a lot in the spy and assassin business. But roleplaying can help you get to know your character too. It takes this person only you know and forces them into situations you can't control. You just have to know how they'd react. (Both the NaNoWriMo and the YWP sites have RP sections if you're wondering where to start.) Plus, it can be more exciting than a simple interview – it's my alter ego Elyse's favorite way to work out a character. An added bonus: sometimes you meet really neat people that can help you with other parts of your story or just be amazingsauce friends.
- Talk about them
Bring up your character in casual conversation with someone you know is interested. Start telling their life story, talking about their relationships, just like you're telling them about a friend of yours they don't know. If something doesn't make sense, they'll ask questions and those questions can give you insight to what parts are missing in your character's personality or history.
- Draw or photo manip pictures of them
Appearance is important – trust me, I'm a spy. Sometimes, the way your character looks will really change the way you see them and how they act. If my protagonist stayed 5'10”, she would not be nearly as insecure as she is about being trapped or restrained, and that's pretty important for her. In fact, her tiny stature ends up being a big part of her character – and your character's appearance might matter more than you think.
This list isn't nearly comprehensive but it should give you a starting board if you're not really well acquainted with your protagonist (or your antagonist, or any of your supporting characters for that matter). Once you really get to know that one stubborn darling, I promise it will open your story up into a new layer of depth. You're writers – you have a very specific skill set.
Just be careful who you use it for.