I came into the office (aka Amore Coffee) this morning and discovered a lovely email from a young woman who is considering writing her first novel. She sent me a list of twenty-two questions about writing craft and publication, and rather than send back an email large enough to crash a server, I thought I'd answer them one by one here:
1. How do you develop your characters? Are they people you know?
I think that if you want write believable characters it helps to be a kind of Sherlock Holmes in real life. Not necessarily the Robert Downey, Jr., pugilist version, but rather a keen observer of human nature.
I joke about that last bit because one of the tricks I often use when writing characters is to ask myself the question: "If I was that person in that situation, how would *I* react?" (This can be a bit embarrassing when, later, you show that scene to your writers' critique group and they explain how galatically stupid your character is behaving.) However, I think this trick can work... but only if you can really stretch your imagination in a way that might include, for instance, you being an alien or of the opposite gender or of a different social-economic class or a vampire or.... you get the picture.
Which might lead you back to Holmes...
When I draw on real people, I tend not to borrow them wholesale from reality. What I do, instead, is smoosh together traits I've observed in a several of my friends (or even family, although drawing on your family can be dangerous if only because they're always looking for themselves in your work even when you intentionally avoid putting them there.)
I think the most important trick to remember when developing a character is to think about how weird we all really are, how diverse, how interesting -- and capitalize on that wherever you can.
What I mean is -- nobody is ever just one thing. A soldier is more than his or her orders or rank. She might be a failed opera singer. He might secretly read romances. Her father might have taught her to sail. His sister might be a lesbian.
The possiblities are endless. Though you don't want to just throw in quirk to be quirky or you run the risk of coming off like late season "Gilmore Girls" and stretching the OTHER edge of credibility. For myself, I try to bring out the weird so that it serves my plot in some way. Back to the soldier example, I might try to think up some issue that would put my character in direct conflict with an order. What if this was a future where being gay was outlawed? Having the soldier have to deal with his own family would make his life more complicated. Then you build on those complicaitons. What kind of relationship does s/he have with his/her sister? Is it a good one or bad? Which would lead to the hardest decision for our soldier hero/ine? That's the one you choose. IMHO, complications are critical to believable characters (and plot motion, but that might be a discussion for another time.)
To be a good storyteller, you have to be willing to torture your characters. Giving them an easy life kills drama.