Take characterization for instance. I do character bios, but only after I’ve met the folks who will populate my novel. When I sit at the keyboard with a new idea in mind, I also have a general idea of who my characters are and what they’re like. They introduce themselves better as I go along, something that I dearly love because they’re always such a surprise.
But when an incident in the plot occurs, and they respond differently than I expected, I have to talk to them about it. “Why did you say that?” “Why makes you feel this way?” That’s when I go into free-writing, a trick taken from outliners. I sit down with a pen and my spiral notebook and conduct an interview. I always write in the character’s POV, using his own voice to tell me what’s going on or what went on in his background to influence the person he is. That’s the closest I get to a character sketch, but it works.
Recently while working on The Cat Lady’s Secret, I had trouble with one of the minor characters, Spencer Milligan. He’s an angry young man, and I needed to know why, but my need to know occurred far enough in the book that I knew a little about him. He’s seventeen and loves to play baseball. His parents are divorced, and he doesn’t understand why. His dad gets him on weekends; his mom has a new boyfriend. I know what his father does for a living, how he feels about being divorced, how he feels about Spencer’s anger problems, and how strict he is with his son. His mother isn’t a character in the novel, but I’ve insinuated enough about her to tell me all I need to know about her son.
Keeping all this information in mind, I asked myself, “What would make a young man become so angry?”
A basic knowledge of psychology would give the obvious answer–he’s angry that his parents are divorced. Still, I wanted to dig deeper. Divorced parents aren’t uncommon these days. Something else must’ve happened to get this boy so mad.
So, I talked to him about it. First thing I discovered was the incident he believes caused his parents to split up–something centered around him. He feels he’s to blame for their divorce, but a seventeen-year-old would know his parents’ split-up would have nothing to do with him. That’s when I discovered how young he was when they divorced, and how long he has been holding in all this hostility. The discovery made his actions in the novel logical.
That really is all there is to it: take the time to understand the character within the confines of the story. Let your characters introduce themselves and get to know them. Keep a record of what they reveal to you so you can use that information to learn even more. Free-write in their POV so you can hear their voices and reveal their stories while remaining true to their character.