Characters pretty much shape themselves as I write my stories. I start out seeing each one as a kind of paper cut-out, and without fail these flat, paper dolls fill out with human features, internal workings, conflicts, wants, and fears. By the time the story is finished, I’ve (hopefully) created a protagonist other people can root for and sympathize with. Here’s a bit about what goes on inside my mind when I’m fleshing out a character:
1) What’s your problem anyway? Who wants to read a story about a perfect, well-rounded girl who has everything going for her? That’s what I thought. No one. So after I get the story moving, sometimes before I’m even on sentence two, I scrape around in my mind for something to make my protagonist imperfect, and maybe not wholly likable at first.
2) Why would you do that? Oftentimes, my flawed protagonist will do something stupid or say something cruel and then I’ll be left trying to clean up after her. It forces me to stop and really ponder why she tested the boundaries, and what good could come of it.
3) Is that “Organica”? No, I’m not talking about the produce in aisle seven. I’m talking about that really frustrating, teeth-grinding word people often use when discussing the craft of writing. My manipulative mind is always trying to get away with the “high fructose corn syrup” method of writing, but then I have to stop, grind my teeth a bit more, and accept that my characters really will be better if I choose to go organic—er, with lines and actions that is.
4) Oh yeah? Well life ain’t easy. Get over it. This is what I tell my protagonist when I decide I need to kill someone off that she loves. When I make life just a wee bit more difficult. When I don’t allow her to bathe or eat for extended periods of time. When I need to trick her or hurt her, or allow her to wallow in self-pity for just a few more chapters. Of course, it pains me too. But hey—get over it already.
5) I knew you could do it! Do your characters ever surprise you? Do they ever work out a problem without giving you even a single hint of how they’re going to do it? Those are the most exciting moments in writing, when you realize your characters really have taken on an existence of their own. They live and function in a totally separate realm of your mind, showing their true selves in bits and pieces when you need it most. And they surprise you, too, because they prove they’re even cooler than you once thought.