I worry about this too. I know writers - some of you may be among them - who can take their characters with them to pick out gift wrapping paper and know exactly which pattern each character will select. This is admirable, but I can't do it. I can guess for a few of my characters. Wilma, for example, in The Wish loves dogs, so if there’s gift-wrap with dogs on it, that’s what she’ll choose. On the other hand, she’s considerate, so she might forego dogs for something the gift recipient would want.
See? I don’t know for sure.
I’m particularly uncertain about my characters near the beginning of a book when we haven’t been together for very long. They haven’t gone through many situations yet. I haven’t seen their reactions or dreamed up reactions for them. I’m feeling my way. How will Patrick (invented right now) react to losing the allowance money he’s been saving for a year? I think about his possible responses, list several, consider their impact on my story, pick one, and keep going. Later, what he did about the lost money may give me a clue to how he’ll behave when he has an important exam coming up. I already know that he saved for a year, so he’s a preparer. But his previous preparation did him no good, so maybe he’ll decide to wing the test. Or he may do something entirely different, which I discover through notes.
The point is not to feel you've failed if you haven’t mined the depths of your characters’ characters right away.
When I was very little, two or three years old, my mother took me to a university for some kind of intelligence test. I’m not sure why, but I suspect I wasn’t talking as fluently as my older sister had at the same age. I think I remember the event because my mother made me promise not to tell my father. I have a few vivid memories of it. The examiner, a friendly man, asked me what a puddle was, and I knew but couldn’t find the words to explain - I hadn’t yet learned concavity. I smiled at him and probably shrugged. Inside I felt frustrated and foolish. Afterward, he told my mother (in my presence) that he was concerned at the beginning but then I improved. I think he wound up saying that I was normal. On our way home, I remember having the adult and forgiving thought that of course my mother needed me to take the test. I was new, and she hadn’t figured me out yet.
The same goes for our characters, who are new to us, and it takes a while to get to know them and figure them out. In Writing Magic, in the chapter called "Character Helper," there’s a questionnaire that can help you round out your characters. It asks basic questions about the character and also questions that call for some digging. Some may never come up in your story. Your character may be a medieval peasant before pockets or purses or backpacks were invented. She certainly doesn’t have her own bedroom. You can answer the question anyway or adapt it to suit your needs. If she has no backpack, she may still collect things and hide them in a secret place or in a sack that she keeps with her always.
Most often I use the questionnaire, not when I’m thinking up the character in the first place, but later, when I’m in trouble, when the character is as opaque to me as the bottom of a frying pan. As I answer the questions, traits come to me. Ah. Patrick is freaked out by people with loud voices. He doesn’t like to be asked to explain his actions; he wants to be trusted. He loves to whistle. Now I’m getting a better idea of him.
The writer’s best tools for creating layered characters are feelings and thoughts. Let’s make Patrick a minor character this time. He’s a friend of our main character, Louisa, and he’s been hurt by another character, physically or emotionally. How does Louisa feel about this? Pure sympathy? Does she cry? Or chew the inside of her cheek? Does she tell anyone? Does she feel the hurt as if it had happened to her? Does she want to take revenge for her friend? Or does she see both sides? Does she guess how Patrick contributed to the hurt? Does she want him to learn a lesson? Does she want to be the person to explain the lesson?
If you show Louisa’s thoughts and feelings she’ll become more real to you and the reader. Her thoughts and feelings may not be saintly even if she’s a good person. She may be prone to envy or to criticize or to deny unwelcome emotions. If her reactions are genuine, the reader is likely to find himself in her. Then the reader will collaborate with you in endowing her with complexity.
You can try throwing your main character into a new setting or introducing a new character. Stirring things up may bring out aspects of your character that you haven’t seen before. Give Louisa a peculiar new teacher. Send her on a camping trip.
Here are a couple of character-development prompts. To do them, use a character in a story you’re working on or invent a new character.
- Your main character has been insulted in any way you choose by someone he (or she) thinks is on his side, and the insult comes out of the blue. What does he feel? How does he express the feeling? What does he think? Does he keep his thoughts to himself? How does he interact with the person who delivered the insult?
- Your main character is traveling alone for the first time. Make up the circumstances that occasion the trip. How does she (or he) get ready? What are her thoughts and feelings about it?
- Take Patrick's problem. Your main character has lost (through carelessness or theft or whatever you like) his stash of cash. What does he do? How does he think and feel?
Have fun! Save what you wrote.