One of the most difficult aspects of writing fiction lies in creating believable, three-dimensional characters that come to life on the page. While it’s relatively easy to come up with the skeleton of a character, characters, like people, have multiple layers that extend far beyond what is originally perceived.
So often are people, and consequently characters, defined by what they do rather than who they are, it seems that this same idea naturally translates when creating a character. There’s the “sympathetic bartender” or the “hardened lawyer,” the “girl-next-door” or the “bad boy with the heart of gold.” These descriptions provide the reader with the basics necessary to creating a setting or presenting a plot; however, they are still merely the shell of a character.
To create more depth, and thus a more believable, well-rounded character, it’s important to ask “who,” rather than “what,” and finding out the “who” often requires asking “why.”
One of the best exercises I’ve found for character development is the character interview. This exercise forces you, as the writer, to really listen to what the characters are saying, to figure out who they are and to get to know them just as you would someone who is originally a stranger. Even if you don’t use all of the information you gain, it will be a starting point (and who knows what inspiration might be lurking in the answers).
What is your character’s favorite vacation spot? What toy did they play with as a child? Who took care of them when they were sick? What is their favorite fruit? What is their favorite piece of clothing?
Don’t stop with one-word answers. Find out the motivation behind the responses. Ask “why.”
Why can that sympathetic bartender be found recommending wine to customers at the hotel bar? Why does the hardened lawyer look back fondly on the Easy-Bake Oven she had when she was six?
Just as there is more to every person than a name and an occupation, so is there more to your characters -- yes, even the one who shows up only once -- with memories, experiences, and influences that motivate their actions, place them in that setting, and sometimes even drive the plot forward.
Get to know your characters to create the depth and dimension that can breathe a story to life.