Creating vibrant, memorable characters that people can connect with, can root for is one of the most important jobs a writer has. If your characters are cardboard, it doesn't matter how good the plot is, the story won't be great. Sure, there are plenty of plot-driven novels that are a bit thin on the character side, but those don't tend to be the stories that stick with us. No, the ones that we come back to again and again, the stories that we carry with us long after we've finished the final page are the ones where the characters feel real and true.
So, how do we create strong, well-rounded characters? That certainly is the question and one that I think you can find many answers to. Some writers seem to find that characters spring into their minds practically fully formed, while others need to do a bit more work to flesh out their characters. Personally, I fall into the latter category. It takes more work, more writing to develop my characters out. I always find that I have a clearer sense of them by the end of the novel than I had at the beginning. But, there are a few different exercises I have been trying out to develop my characters.
- What Happened Before the Story?
Any good story should start where the action is. In general, no one wants to read about your character doing mundane things, going about their everyday lives (unless you are writing that kind of slice-of-life book, though even those leave out the most boring details). I will sometimes sketch out a few days before the action starts. What are their days like? Who do they spend time with? What is their routine like? By seeing them in their normal situations and circumstances, you can get a clearer sense of who they are in their everyday lives. This background will play into your story, regardless of how extraordinary the circumstances of your story are.
- Switch Up the POV
Of course, there are many ways to tell a story, but most of us focus on the stories and perspectives of one or a few characters. Switch it up and describe your main character (or characters) from another character's perspective, show some of the events from another character's point of view. Aside from helping you get a better sense of how other characters see your main character(s), you will get a better sense of whatever supporting character you choose to explore the POV of.
- Describe Their Home
For most of us, our homes are a representation of where we are most ourselves, where we feel the most comfortable. They have pictures of our friends and family, they are decorated to our tastes, they have evidence of our hobbies and preferences. While some setting description is necessary, too much can be tedious, so it is likely not all of this description will make it into your novel. That said, describing your main character's (or even your antagonist's) space can help you to visualize the space they inhabit and the life they have in it.
- Books and Movies
Perhaps this is just the writer side of me, but I think the kinds of books and movies a person likes says a lot about them. Knowing what books and movies your character relates to can help you to flesh out their likes and dislikes, their taste, the things they are drawn to. I'm not suggesting you catalogue every book they've ever read or every movie they've ever seen, just a couple of favorites.
These are a few things I try to think about when fleshing out my characters. A lot of this goes into research or notes sections of my Scrivener file or into a separate document, but it is still useful, even if it isn't in the final draft of the book. Of course, this list isn't exhaustive and the exercises I like you may not. Personally, I'm not really into journalling through the perspective of my characters or filling in exhaustive lists where you decide everything from their favorite color to whether they prefer Nacho Cheese or Cool Ranch Doritos. But, if that works for you, keep doing it. The only way to figure out what exercises you like, what works for you, is to throw a bunch of things up on the wall and see what sticks.