As promised, I'm sharing a little that I learned at Norwescon through some great conversations with the likes of Carol Berg and Brenda Carr and Renee Stern over the breakfast table and at spare minutes over the weekend. Since characters are at the heart of every story, we talked about characters a lot: what makes them tick, how to flesh them out, how to understand their part in the story. Doing so, and listening to Carol and some others read from their works, got my brain working in this regard.
Every writer goes about creating characters differently. For me, it has always been about letting them grow organically from the page. Each character develops his own personality and speaks right up for himself when something needs to be said. When seven characters are in a group, I never have to stop and think who should say what. It just flows from who they are. How they react in any situation has always helped me understand how they got there and who they are.
The problem, however, with letting characters find themselves is that they could easily come out looking all the same, especially the lesser lights. Secondary characters need to be distinctive to be memorable, fully as much as the main characters need to be different from each other. And beware, if you write series, that you don't write a new series with the same characters from the last one, just with different names. I notice that Bernard Cornwell did this with his Starbuck Chronicles, which I did not enjoy nearly as much as I did his Sharpe series, where he pioneered his stock characters of an officer and his faithful sergeant meeting all circumstances together. Even Cornwell admits the two series are similar and laid off Starbuck in pursuit of other projects.
So, how to keep your characters fresh? Brenda Carr, who just sold her first story to Fantasy and Science Fiction (good for her!), "interviews" her characters to understand how they'll react to given situations. Her imagination is a bit richer than mine, I'm guessing, so I did a matrix instead, for the first time ever, for a series I'm working on. Hoo boy! That was enlightening.
Here's something to try if you're stuck on characterization: build yourself a table in Word or Excel or on paper. My columns were:
Name of Character
Discover your character's strong points, in magic or physical prowess or mental agility or what have you. Then discover what keeps him from being all powerful. These are also the things his enemies can use against him, whether it is a weakness of character like gluttony, a gap in knowledge like total inexperience with the opposite sex, or a chink in his magical armor. Both strengths and weaknesses should arise logically and not just because you think the character needs them. Maybe your guy has a withered right arm. How did it get that way? Is one of his weaknesses a terrible fear of dogs? Where did it come from? If a strength is stubborn loyalty, can that also be a weakness?
Quirks are those things that make your characters different from everybody else and instantly recognizable on the page, like a favorite expression, a nervous twitch, a weird-sounding voice, or an obsession with dirt. Here is where you turn your stereotypes inside out, like Carol Berg did by making a knightly character obsessed with his physical comforts and somewhat effeminate, clutching his scented hanky all the time. USA Network prides itself on its "characters welcome" tagline, with characters like Monk and House so far outside the normal box they are memorable and watchable just because they're so different. A really "different" character who is also sympathetic is the Holy Grail.
Understanding your character's motivations keeps him or her from becoming a cardboard cutout. It will quickly become clear if your villain is simply EVIL or driven, like Hannibal Lector, by some horrid thing in his past. Evil really doesn't work as a motivation. Good, believable characters have more than one facet, and more than one reason for doing what they do. Find them. Understand how one character's motivations runs up against another's. This is the basis of conflict, without which it's impossible to sustain the plot of a novel (or any decent short story, either).
Recording physical characteristics is not just a good idea, it's essential to keeping continuity from one end of the novel to the other. It's really stupid to allow your character's eyes to change color from one chapter to the next for no reason. And when you write it all down and start to compare them, you'll quickly note if all of your people are starting to look the same.
Other writers no doubt have different systems, more or less involved, but I think I will use this from now on to deepen my understanding of who my characters are, and to force myself not to get lazy and just let them figure it out for themselves. Even the lesser characters onstage deserve a good part!