Plot makes a story interesting and page-turning, but characters make readers care about that plot.
Suspense novelists need to set a fast paced story, and so to be successful at character development, we had better know how to nail them fast. This post isn't about character arcs where events alter our creations for better or worse, this is about beginning the story with fully formed, four-dimensional (at least), human beings. You can't take the time to "build" them, and your story is what changes them.
Think of the thought and planning a pilot needs to go through when landing on an aircraft carrier at sea. There's no room for error, and no way to mosey down the runway until he feels like stopping. And because he's gone over and over the process (backstory) he doesn't need to think much about why he's taking the various steps and making his decisions. Everything is automatic. Everything makes sense. Everything works.
In order to land on the "character" carrier sure-footed and ready to role out the plot, the novelist has got to know their characters intimately before introducing them to readers. What are some of the ways to do this?
Character charts abound. Most of them leave me feeling like I've created a cardboard cutout of some dull, predictable clod. Not even near as interesting as Flat Stanley. Occasionally I'll run into a question or two that opens doors for additional insight, but more often, they make me get bored with a character before I've even found a way to care about them. And these are my characters! Sheesh.
A young writer friend asked about character charts and I told her I didn't use them. And I told her why. But then later, it dawned on me that she writes paranormal, fantasy kinds of things, and builds a rather unique storyworld. So, for her, figuring out what her strange creature eats for breakfast might be kind of fun. Sometimes the minutiae can really get a writer juiced, as long as it's unique.
There are two things that work best for me (and I'd love to hear what works for you).
The first is writing a first person character study. Free-form. Just let myself go. What I'm looking for in the process are the defining moments (thanks, Dr. Phil) of my character's life. What made them the people they are today? This exercise lets me get into the skin of the person I'm writing about and keep them real and true to character.
The second thing sort of happens while I'm doing the free-form first person character study. I keep asking them questions. The main one is "Why?" It's kind of working backward. Rather than constructing a character, I'm deconstructing one. Let me get to the crux/core/heart of the matter.
When I think of favorite books, the plot might be a sharp point of remembrance, but it's the characters who invade my psyche and hold on that truly make a story memorable. That's what I strive for with every paragraph I write.
Most writers have pages on their websites for other writers. Many times, you can find character charts on those. Pick an author whose characters grab you, and see what they've got available.
Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins is an excellent book on character development.
Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card is one that comes highly recommended.
45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt is also one that is recommended.
Heroes & Heroines by Cowden, LaFever and Viders is another option.
Fiction never exceeds the reach of the writer's courage.
JF: Fire and Ice by J.A. Jance. I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Look for it on sale July 21st.
CR: Pandora's Daughter by Iris Johansen. So far, this one isn't doing much for me. That's why I put it down for the Jance, but have picked it up again. I'm forever hopeful.
Next, I'm thinking I'd like to give J.D. Rhoades a try.
It's all better with friends.