Depending on your individual writing process, you either get to know your characters before your write a story or after you’ve written some of it.
One way of familiarizing yourself with your characters is to define them on a whim or based on research, which is basically something like doing a character profile and/or interview exercise, and then taking the character you have in mind or developed from research, and attempting to make them three dimensional by attributing this, that, and the other to them.
Another way is the way I usually do it. I write some scenes that have been developing in my mind, featuring my next story’s characters, and I let their (inter)actions in those scenes define them for me. Your characters lead by example; their authentic personalities and natures are not defined by you, but by their instincts and interactions with others (within your imagination). You, the author, just happen to witness them in action, and then recollect their lives on the page.
Personally, I believe that the second option is much more effective in offering already three dimensional characters that a writer must only interpret. However, both approaches can be equally important and helpful, depending on the story you’re writing and your individual process of creation/composition. After years of experimenting on exercises and various procedures, I made up a process that works best for me, as you should do for yourself as well, if you have not already.
In the beginning of my writing process, I’ll usually write scenes and maybe outline a story I have in my mind just the way it is. Then, solely based on what my content says about my characters and the plot so far, I fill out character profiles or test how strong they are by asking myself what their struggles and goals seem to be. I even fill out my pre-writing questionnaire for each story I’m serious about writing. Once I have my analysis done, I know what to focus on in the draft I will write thereafter. The questions that were harder to answer will be paid more mind to developing in my next draft. That specific approach works amazingly for me – it allows me to fully express my creativity and plan to craft something that has deeper meaning.
Perhaps I don’t want to scribble over what my mind has already created, so I try to work with what I have rather than redefine things, at first. After all, it’s not accurate to think that your imagination is enough. It only serves as inspiration, and it does not translate to realistic perfection, by any means. Use your imagination to your advantage, yet let your practical mind dig deeper when you’re writing or editing your drafts for publication. Interpret and analyze what you’re thinking. There is great depth in our imaginations, and we must learn to exploit it without stomping over on our creative visions in the process.
Going back to characters, the point of this post is quite simple; let the humanity or lack thereof of each character, not just their written profiles, act as defining factors of them. If you perceive your characters to be human and real and not simply tools of your plot, they probably won’t disappoint you on the page. We all know that characters must serve the plot, however, they don’t have to be mechanical in their service. They have to be human (at heart) to get through to readers, and nothing is more multi-faceted and profound as human nature.
Next time you write, remember to highlight your characters’ humanity in some way through their actions. If they’re bad guys/gals, maybe show us how their present attitudes are an emotional response to an event or action in the past. If they’re all business and logic, zero emotion, maybe include a moment that they have in private that reveals that they’re not all hard inside. Show us the little things, and we’ll fall for them a little more.