If a character from your novel or short story were to come alive and show up at your house for dinner, what would they look like? A cardboard cutout? A translucent ghost built only on personality? The embodiment of pure good or pure evil? Perhaps your character is so deep that it would take more than a dinner to get to know them–a whole series perhaps. On the other hand, your character might be so flimsy that they fall apart in the chair. Take the challenge and sit across from them. Who do you see?
Your character should be realistic. Even in fantasy and science fiction, your readers want someone with whom they can relate. This requires more than creating an extraordinarily detailed description of the way a person acts, speaks, moves, and thinks. Look at the character sitting across from you. What makes them tick? They exist in a space and time that you create. How have generational beliefs affected them? With whom do they interact? How do they feel about the world around them? How do they feel about the person whom they need the most? Create a history for them, a set of beliefs, a set of experiences that have evolved to create the person you see before you.
Now poke them. See how they react. Do they respond with the slightest tilt of their chin? What is that look in their eyes? Look deep. Notice every twitch, inhalation, and flare of their nostrils. How do they physically and physiologically react?
Now quiet yourself and listen to them. Listen to their story. Listen for the pain in their voice when they talk about their struggles. Do their words match what their body is saying? What do they NOT say? What is too painful for them to approach? What is it that they truly do not want you to know?
Listen to their voice. What phrase do they say over and over again that they don’t even realize. What is that twang in their voice? Where did it come from? Are they someone who is easily heard in the crowd or the person screaming to be noticed that everyone ignores?
Over the main course, pry into your character’s life and discover the answer to “why.” Your character should not be all good or all evil. They should not be always happy or always sad. They should be complex. They should struggle with who they are and who they want to be. They should be the good guy who does the wrong thing for the right reason. They should be the villain who believes he is justified when he does evil or the one who does good only for self-gain. He should be the character on the fence(sometimes good–sometimes bad) but always in the middle and often the creator of his own and others problems.
Now step back and see them for who they really are. They are your creation, but they are flawed. Step to the kitchen door and look at them how your other characters look at them. Are they pathetic? Someone who whines so much and so often that your other characters tire of being around them? Do they unnaturally show up at just the right time so your readers are skeptical? Why do they need they always place themselves in the role of martyr? Do they need a savior themselves? Is that what they are hiding? Be realistic. Readers do not care for over exaggeration. Balance the character’s flaws and merits.
It is easy to love your own creation. Sometimes we love them so much that we fail to see them as the multifaceted creatures that they should be. It is great to have the villain we love to hate or the villain we love despite ourselves, but more importantly, it is great to have the character that your readers dream about and think about when the final page is read regardless of whether they are good or bad. Look at the character sitting across from you. Now create what you see.