I often get carried away when creating characters, knowing stupidly small details about my characters’ lives that were never going to be important. Once I’ve created a character, they become so real to me that it’s easy enough to know what they’d do, say or think in any situation.
But that doesn’t just appear like magic. Well, not to me. For me, there are two stages of developing characters: there’s the conscious phase and the unconscious phase. During the conscious phase I decide what their name is going to be, their age, their physical description and what they add to the plot. I also decide some basic characteristics for them. I call this the conscious phase because I’m very aware that I’m creating someone who isn’t real.
The unconscious phase is a very different story. By this point I know enough about a character that they carry themselves. In this phase it’s like the character truly does exist, even if it is just in my head. In this phase I’ll ask my character questions and I’ll come up with the answers unconsciously (or seemingly) so it’s like the character is talking to me. My favourite example is a question that one day someone asked me what my protagonist's favourite colour was and for no reason at all I answered “orange”.
So why not give it a go? Especially if you’re stuck. Ask your character some questions. Here are some to start you off:
What’s your favourite colour?
What’s on your desk?
Who’s your favourite person in the world?
What do you hate the most?
When is your birthday?
When you go out, what do you always take with you?
What was/is your favourite subject at school?
If you still find yourself stuck, what I tend to do is write something from the new character's point of view. My favourite thing to do when introducing a character part way into a story is write them having a conversation with the protagonist from the new character’s point of view, side by side with the protagonist’s point of view, so I end up with two versions of the same conversation. This way you learn not only about your new character but also how the protagonist reacts to them and what they think of them.
Just remember, only include something if it’s relevant or adds something to the mood of the story. This goes for everything and not just characters. Sometimes in good writing, you have to cut your favourite sentence because it doesn’t actually add anything. Learn to be brutal, that’s all I’ll say. If you create a character and it turns out that they’re not actually relevant and have no place in the story, that’s okay. It’s all good practice and you never know. They might have a story of their own to tell you one day.
In short: let your characters surprise you, ask them questions and don’t include the irrelevant detail.
So why not give it a go? Ask your favourite character the questions above and post the answers in the comments below. Hopefully they'll surprise you.