Characters are arguably the most important aspect of stories—whether they appear in novels or in short stories, in newspaper articles or in commercials, in allegories or in films. Not a story has been told without a character. Even stories lacking in humans, animals, robots, aliens, gods, or any living, thinking being still have characters. A house can be a character, or a car, or the wind, or even a grain of rice. Characters drive the plot forward; they inhabit the setting; they present the themes, live out the morals (or lack thereof), provide a sense of direction.
Incidentally, I think I have successfully exhausted the subject of the importance of characters. But then if characters are so important, what can we as writers do to ensure their intricacy and uniqueness? We need to become one with the characters—think like they would, eat what they would, sleep like they would. Let the characters consume your personality when the situation allows itself. Think of it as a performance.
Acting as a form of writing has worked for me at least. My background in theatre has no doubt led me to this approach. By allowing myself to act as one of my written characters, I force myself to be conscious of every decision each character makes and their knowledge of the consequences. Thus, when you go to write, you know how your characters would act and react in certain situations. This prevents you from allowing your character to act out of character. I was about a third of the way through a novel (Henry MacDurmond Is Not Invisible) when I realized a certain character—the Rogue Nun—would by her very nature not be a passenger on a train that I had her on, and I had to scrap her from the story and start all over.
What is key is that we as writers are fully aware of how each of our characters—no matter how big or how small—are making choices that are in line with who they are.
This may sound silly, but my favorite way of testing out a new character is to take him to get his hair cut. I have a few old cell phone numbers (mine, and a few friends’), as well as a landline number that is no longer in use. When I go to a new place to get my hair cut, I simply give them one of these decommissioned telephone numbers, along with the fictitious name of my character. As long as I am currently working on a novel that I deem “realistic” fiction, then my characters should all be human and controlled enough (i.e. not over the top) so that I can pretend to be someone else for the fifteen minutes it takes to cut my hair.
The hairdresser is going to ask you questions about yourself. It’s what they do. So why not make it interesting for yourself and get a little work on your writing done at the same time? Win, win.
This is by no means the only method for character development out there. It’s not even the only method I use. In reality, there are hundreds of exercises—both on and off paper—that exist to develop your characters fully. The haircut method is just a fun way for me to try out a new character. What is most important for each writer is to find a method that serves his or her interests best. It may vary from character to character, and some characters may require two, or ten, or a hundred, different methods to flesh out the more intricate levels of their existence. Whatever the method, any type of character development will ensure you have a deeper, more understood character than you started with.