The simple answer to that is that you have to get inside their heads. You have to put them in a variety of scenarios and see how they act, see how they react to the people around them. It isn’t enough to just write your characters in the confines of the scenes they inhabit. What do they do for fun? What was their relationship like with their parents? How did they feel about school? The list is endless. Just give yourself ten minutes with your character, a pen and a situation and see what happens.
At a recent character workshop run by the very talented author Susan Elliot Wright, one of the writing tasks was to write for ten minutes from the point of view of your character waiting for someone to arrive on a train. The only other stipulation was that they hadn’t seen the person arriving for a long time. At first, I stared blankly at my paper. That didn’t happen in my book and I was putting my protagonist in an entirely new situation. ‘There isn’t even a train station in Cedarthorpe,‘ I thought.
After the time was up, I was pretty happy with what I had written and found that I had learned something new about my character. She was wearing a necklace. She fiddled with it while she was waiting; it was a sign of nerves. And then my mind started to race. Why that necklace? Was it significant? Who had given it to her? Within that ten minutes, I had decided that this necklace mattered. This necklace had belonged to her sister who had died. It was a grounding mechanism that she touched when she was feeling out of control. It was silver and in the shape of a butterfly. I had found out something significant about her and it is currently being written into other parts of the novel. In short, it made her more real, more alive. Now, whenever I picture her, she is wearing that necklace.
Making a character a person is a massive undertaking but it is arguably one of the most important. Think about your favourite book, TV show, film. What is it that makes you want to find out what happens next? Usually because, on some level, you feel like you know that character and they matter to you. So, if you want your people made of pen ink and punctuation to have the same impact on your readers, spend some time with them and really get to know them.
Until next time, happy writing.