Characters make the story. No matter how intriguing the idea or exciting the plot, if there isn't a character there we care about (even if it's just a little) the rest of it falls flat.
There are all kinds of ways to develop those characters. One of the more common tricks is the character worksheet. I'm sure most of you have seen these. Long lists of questions you fill out that determine physical characteristics, likes, dislikes, history, etc.
Well, these sheets have never worked for me. Details with no context have never helped me get to know my characters, and sometimes they even pigeonhole me into something I came up with because I needed to fill in that slot.
What I've found more useful, is to ask questions about my characters that pertain to their lives. This gives me answers that I can directly apply to my story. Now, it's important for me to point out here that I rarely know the answers to all these questions when I start. I'll know a few key points since those are what's driving my newbie character, but the rest develops as I write the story and watch my characters interact.
There's nothing wrong with starting a story with basic, underdeveloped characters. Part of the fun is discovering who these people are. And sometimes, you don't know the type of person your character needs to be (or is) until you see how the story unfolds.
Things I Find Useful to Know Before I Write
1. What are the critical needs of my character?
Chances are these will be connected to the core conflict of the story. For Nya, it was to stay alive, and to protect her sister. I didn't know that much more about her at the beginning. Knowing a few key needs are important because those needs are probably driving and influencing all of your character's decisions. You want them to be the kind of needs that will help your plot unfold.
2. What are the critical fears of my character?
Knowing what they're afraid of helps you flesh out what your conflicts might be. You won't just pick stuff to throw in their path, you'll pick stuff that will affect them on a deeper level, thus creating a more emotionally layered scene. And seeing how your character reacts to what they fear, helps you learn more about them so you can flesh them out more.
3. Who are their friends?
They say you can tell a lot about a person by who they hang around with, so what types of people are in your characters' lives? What are their key needs and fears? Do they have traits that your character finds appealing or soothing? Annoying or irritating?
4. Who are their enemies?
Who they avoid or can't stand says a lot about them, too. Why do they avoid these people? It's okay for them to have selfish or childish reasons. Not everything your character thinks has to be noble. Stuff that'll cause them trouble is actually a lot more fun, especially if their beliefs are flat out wrong sometimes.
Things I Look for as I Write
1. What personality trait helps them? What hurts them?
This is a different take on the old "strengths and weaknesses" question. I like to look at it as it pertains to the story at hand. What does your character do that usually gets them out of trouble or helps them find their way? What do they do that usually backfires, or gets them into trouble?
Once you've found these traits, ask yourself: "How did the character get that way?"
You'll draw from or create some backstory here, but that's okay. Because odds are, you'll know enough about your character and world now to see where in that world your character would have learned (or not learned) these skills to survive. That might even connect to something else in the story you can use to create more conflict or raise a stake.
2. What do they think is fair? Unfair?
This explores their moral beliefs. What have they found in your story that really ticked them off and made them want to act to fix it? (it doesn't have to be your plot, but it's okay if it is). What has made them happy, or feel safe? Their sense of justice can be found in how they feel about the situations around them.
Once you know that: You'll have a better sense of what they'd be willing to do or not do when faced with these situations, and that'll tell you even more about them.
In fact, knowing how they view justice can even give you ideas on how to put them into situations where those ideas are tested. Forcing them to make tough choices gives you further opportunities for character development, and gives you some nifty scenes to boot.
3. What do they like about their friends? Dislike about them?
Not everyone agrees all the time, especially friends. But the stuff we like and dislike about folks says just as much about us as our friends. These little spots will probably come up naturally as you write, because you're probably looking for places to add conflict or hash out different ideas to keep the tension up. What opinions have you given your characters without even realizing it? Use these to deepen emotions.
Once you know this: You're often more willing to agree to something if you like that person or believe the same thing. Even if that something is "wrong" or goes against the norm. Just like you'll rebel against doing something you disagree with, even if it seems like the most logical way of handling a situation. You can use these feelings to show other sides of your characters, both good and bad, and exploit their flaws and virtues.
4. How do they handle stress?
Some folks are calm under pressure, others fall apart. Since your characters are going to be in some stressful situation (I hope), knowing how they react and why can reveal more about them. Sometimes we naturally react one way, but other times it's because we've had experience or training in some way to handle things--good and bad. And we don't always handle them well.
Once you know this: You'll know the knee-jerk reactions your characters will have when faced with things. That first reaction often determines what they'll do next, which drives your story. It might be tempting to give them reactions that help them and always put them on the right path, but giving them traits that cause them to falter is usually way more interesting. And provides you with more fodder for the story.
Character development is all about throwing your characters into situations and seeing how they react. Sometimes you can decide that ahead of time, but a lot of times it shows up as you write. Don't worry if you don't know everything about a character when you start a story. Get to know them same as a reader would. One page at a time.