While editing Draft 5 of Siren Suicides, I noticed a curious thing. Where in previous drafts I had to keep a list of characters complete with their traits and likes and dislikes and such, the more drafts I completed, the less I relied on lists, and in Draft 5 I ended up not relying on any lists at all. I simply think what this character or that character would do, and write accordingly. It's simple, to the point of thinking about real people that I've known my entire life, guessing at their reaction. Which is pretty easy, if you happen to know these people. And that is not all. I have my next book poking its head into my subconscious every day now, and because I've been through this process before, the characters form by association from some unknown source. Here is the lesson I've learned. It's always been right from the start. The problem was not in my characters, it was in me. I was a green beginning writer with not a clue about how to write a novel, and I doubted myself. But my characters never did, and all I had to do was, LET THEM LIVE ON THEIR OWN.
Keep the first thing that comes to mind. I remember the very first images I had for my sirens, way back in 2008. I had no story back then yet, only pictures. And instead of simply writing down what I saw in my head, I proceeded doubting myself and researching siren mythology to death. I ended up wasting hours and hours and using close to none of it in my novel, yet the original look and feel for the characters stayed exactly the same. Bleached looking white hair, as if devoid of color. Voices that can sing out souls. Both lungs and gills for breathing. Long hair being sirens' only cover. I can go on and on. So, what is it for you The character's name, look, clothes, favorite food? Just jot down those things as they pop into your head when you begin writing and don't worry about research. Keep writing, your characters will grow. Which brings me to the next point.
Characters take time to form fully. Let them. Don't rush them. You can't tell your child to grow faster, can you? You can't just push a magic button and speed it up. Same goes for characters. They will grow in your mind as real people, if you only stop yelling at them to do it faster already. That's why it takes so long to write a good novel. I will repeat myself here. That's why it takes so long to write a GOOD novel. See what I mean? You can bang out something in a couple of months, I'm sure. But it will most likely suck. Because there is simply not enough time for you to develop your characters. And a story is nothing without good characters. Because any story is about someone being put into some very uncomfortable situation and having to deal with it. If your characters are flat and boring, their decisions will be boring, and the story will collapse, no matter how many twists or turns you introduce.
Merge people you know into new people. Seriously. Your best writing happens when you don't have to think about HOW to write it, but you think WHAT to write. What happens next? Oh, this, cool. Well, what about after that? Got it. The problems start when you have no clue how your characters will react. It's because you don't know them, their flat. One thing I found helps me, (and please take my advice with a grain of salt, because I'm still working on my first novel and am sharing my experience) is combining several people I know into one, using one as the main image and the other for certain traits. I don't do more than 2 because it's hard to keep track of them in my head, and eventually they grow into their own people, but I found it even helps with dialogue, because I imagine them talking in their real voice, and I can tell what sounds awkward and what's not.
Get more time to write! As simple as that. Once you remove the task of compiling lists of your characters, keeping them all organized, etc, etc, you have more time to do the actual writing! Also, I suggest you pick out two or three main characters for your first novel, to make it easier and cleaner and to gain experience. Later, you can handle more. But it's better to do one little thing well, then do a dozen poor ones, wouldn't you agree? At least it was my experience. People keep asking me if I use any special software, or lists, or extra Google docs with compiled character traits. Some people have even sent me their lists to share. I use none. Don't have to. It's all here... *taps herself on the head* There is another problem that arises from this, however, and that is characters talking in my head, but that's a whole another blog post. I'll wrap this up quickly, before they start whispering again.
Well, then... fess up. What's your experience like with building characters?