As a part of preparing for NaNoWriMo 2014, I want to take some time to talk about the most important element of any book: the characters. Characters make or break books far more than the plot every will. Of course, this is just my opinion, and your mileage will vary, but I read for characters. The plot is secondary to them–without those characters, there is no plot. There are plenty of issues with books without plot, but I'll talk about how to marry plots to their characters later.
Let's not invent the car before we deal with the wheel, and the characters are the wheels of your story.
The first thing to remember is that characters are people. Sure, they're imaginary people, but they're people you're bringing to life on the page. As such, they need to act like people, think like people, and behave as people generally do.
This is why I'm a fan of starting every character I write with a trope or stereotype. These are traits I focus a character for, and these traits define what the character does.
A shy individual, for example, is not going to hurry to make friends with each and every last person they meet. They're shy–often, they're too scared to go make friends, even if they want to. A shy character might have the motivation to go make a friend, but there is often something holding them back.
To build a shy character, it's important to understand why they are shy. That's where the background and history of a character comes in. But, don't fool yourself into thinking you need to know every element of their background and history. You don't. You need important facts: Birthday/Age, Basic Personality Traits (Shy, Anxious, Happy), Key Events in their life–death of family, trauma, and so on. Most of these you don't even need to detail much–you need to know it happened/exists. You can build your characters up as you write.
By understanding why someone is as they are, it's possible to write them in such a way they feel real. And that's what makes characters fun to read and write. It isn't always the trouble they get themselves in and out of, but rather the complexity of their present, their past, and their hopes for the future mingling into the person they are on the page.
People, after all, are influenced by their past, what they want to achieve, and where they are right now. They're bolstered by their successes, and they're brought down by their failures. Some crumble under those failures, unable to stand back up. Some rise to the challenge, becoming so much more than who they were when the story started.
It never ceases to surprise me how many words I can add to a story when I decide to let my characters be true to their past and their aspirations for the future. A survivalist will hunt for any means to come out on top, while someone who suffers from depression will struggle to simply exist–depending on the story, they may lose that battle. But that doesn't end their story, as the other characters will feel and live the impact of that loss.
A character, a single character alone, isn't fun to write about. It's the relationships of people, and how they change each other, that really makes a story interesting for me–to write, and to read.
So, this year when you approach your NaNoWriMo, keep your characters in the forefront of your thoughts.
Characters make plots happen–with one exception: Natural disasters.
So, next time you write, ask yourself why a character is doing what they are doing, and run with it. And if you aren't sure what a shy person would do in a certain instance, study them. Psychology books are amazing for learning how to understand how (and why) people behave the way they do.
And if psychology books aren't your thing, there are other options. At the top of the list, in my opinion, is by going people watching. Go sit at a busy cafe and listen to the conversations around you. Profile people. Ask why you think real people behave in the fashion they are behaving.
Learn from them, and then use them as cannon fodder for your novels.
And while you're at it, learn to identify who you think is interest: Capture them, include them in your story. People you think are interesting in a novel will become interesting for others. Why? That's a good question, but I think it has something to do with authorial interest. An author who is ‘into' a project just writes better, in my opinion.
And getting ‘into' a project involves falling in love with the characters–even if that love means you love to hate them.
Characters you feel nothing for become mediocre on the page, in my experience. You don't have to like them, but you need to have a certain amount of empathy with them.
That helps them become real–just my opinion, of course.
Your mileage may vary.