Question of the day: Though I've taken classes with several authors in the past, I'm still learning the finer points of fiction and have a big gap in my knowledge when it comes to creating full, robust characters. How did you go about setting up your characters from the beginning? Did you figure out all of their attributes ahead of time, or did you let them form while you were writing the book?
Great question and particularly applicable to me right now, as I'm on about page 50 of The Happiest Days of My Life and am really focused on making these characters as three-dimensional as possible. I think I develop my characters in two parts: the first is before I put a word on page. Although this book, as well as Time of My Life, are very concept-driven - as in: BIG PLOT - a lot of the plot development, when I conceive the nugget of an idea - revolves around the primary characters. So, for example, when I came up with the idea for TOML, I also obviously had to come up with the character of Jillian, as everything about the book centers around her. Ditto the concept for Happiest Days. It revolves around a woman who might be a little too contended in her life, and without her, the book isn't possible.
So, I start with that skeleton. In the case of Tilly (the protagonist in Happiest Days), I considered her occupation, her marital status, her siblings, how her parents (and their history) shaped her, what her hobbies might be, what her emotional limitations might be, what her weaknesses (and strengths) are. So, that sounds like a lot.
But, I inevitably find as I'm writing that the characters still need to become more full-bodied. The little nuances about people that you really don't understand until you see them in action, if that makes sense. Sort of like if you see all the facets of a blind date on paper, but there are smaller things - but just as important things - that you can't pick up until you meet them out on a date. How they carry themselves, how they react to situations that might surprise you, personal tics that only come out through their story.
I dunno, at the risk of sounding totally lame, the characters, like us, are always a work in progress, and there are always going to be some critics who read the book and think that you didn't do enough with them...but, rest assured, I tried to breathe as much life into them as I could think of. The process becomes easier with every book because I understand how important the small quirks are. If you're stuck, I think it can be really helpful to look around at your friends and family (not that you base characters on them, but still), and consider their tics, their subtleties, and ensure that your characters have them as well.
Just my two cents. How do you guys go about and develop your characters? I'd love to hear!