Whether you’re writing a novel, a short story, or a fictional anecdote in a nonfiction piece, you need to develop your characters so they will seem real to your readers.
Characters have names. They have eyes, hair, feet, and hands. They are male or female, tall or short, thin or fat. (Assuming, of course, that your characters are human beings!) But that is just the beginning.
As you write, work up a detailed character sketch for each of your main characters. What are their physical attributes? You don’t want your hero to have blue eyes in chapter 1 and brown eyes in chapter 8 (unless you make this change for a reason, and make it obvious to your reader).
Go through your thesaurus to collect a few adjectives, adverbs, and verbs that accurately describe each character. Don’t try to give all the details. A few highlights will suffice.
You may wish to clip pictures out of newspapers and magazines and use them to help you envision your characters. You can find interesting faces in advertisements, catalogs, and magazines. Look for pictures of clothing and jewelry your character might wear, places your character may visit often (such as rooms in their homes). You may wish to start a three-ring binder with sections for each of your characters. Include clipped pictures as well as written descriptions, other attributes, and a timeline of various important events in their lives.
But a collection of traits with physical attributes does not add up to a believable character. You need to know what motivates your characters, why they are the way they are, etc.
As you write your story, questions about each character will evolve, and as you answer them, your story will grow. What problems do your characters face? What are their goals? What are their professions, hobbies, virtues, and vices? What do they care about? Are they happy? Fearful? Sarcastic? Lonely? Bitter? Self-assured? Timid? What do they like/dislike?
What are their secrets? When, how, and to whom will those secrets be revealed? If you reveal secrets gradually, your reader will feel there are more surprises to come and new things to find out about your characters.
Don’t make any of your characters either all good or all bad. If your villains do not act with understandable motivations, they won’t seem real. Why, you must ask yourself, does this dreadful person do such awful things? If you don’t know what drives him–however far back in his past the reason may exist–he won’t seem real to you, or to your reader.
Your protagonist must be admirable, or you won’t hold your readers. But he should have some faults, too, to make him “human.”
What emotions do your characters experience during the course of your story? Fear is one of the major emotions your main character will feel—not necessarily physical fear (although there can be some of that), but fear, at least, that his important goals will not be accomplished. The specific cause of fear should change during the course of your story. If your character expresses the same fear over and over again, suspense wanes and the reader will become bored. Your story must grow and change and turn in different directions, and so must your characters.
To understand your characters more completely, you may wish to have one or more of them start a “diary.” Of course, this diary will not be included, word for word, in your novel. But as your character “talks” about himself in the first person, he may begin to feel more real to you. You may be surprised to learn what he thinks, especially about the other characters in your story.