I was a voracious reader long before I became a writer and the one thing I demanded from any book I read was good characters. Not stereotypes or one-dimensional, cookie-cutter characters, I wanted complex, unexpected, yet relateable characters. The best ones were those that caught me off guard and whom I thought about long after the book was finished.
These are also the characters I aspire to write. Only my readers can judge whether or not I succeed, but I certainly do my best. And, one thing I’ve learned during my career is that it’s a process.
The first thing I do is create a detailed character sketch. I am not exaggerating when I say detailed. My sketches go way beyond physical description. They include detailed back stories, psychological profiles, inner and outer conflicts that the character is facing … in other words, the whole nine yards. I do this for every character with a point of view scene.
Doing this allows me to write each character more authentically. They speak differently from each other. They have distinct mannerisms and personalities. They don’t react the same way to situations as other characters do. These elements are important if you want to keep the reader invested in the story.
An added benefit of taking the time to develop such detailed character histories is that the characters take on a life of their own. The story becomes driven by their personalities and psychologies and is that much more authentic as a result. I am often surprised by a scene that turns out differently than I originally conceived it simply because I kept being confronted by the fact that my character would have a particular reaction and it wasn’t the one I wanted. In those situations, the character always wins.
When I reach the point of merely being the vessel for my character’s story, that’s when I feel confident that my characters are real. That’s when I feel like I’ve hit the sweet spot of character development.