If you want a realistic character, you have to be the character. You can fill out character worksheets, learn what makes your character tick. And one of the best ways I have found to do this is to answer the character questions as though you are the character and the questions are an interview.
But worksheets will take you only so far. If you want to write the character, you have to spend some time being the character, walking that virtual mile in his/her shoes.
Let me just take a moment to caution you here…if your character is a jewel thief or a shoplifter, or is into black magic, I am NOT suggesting you need to or even should do these things. In some instances for realistic characterization you are just going to have to be creative. If your character is the mother of a child who has just gone missing, I truly don’t recommend you start screaming, “Timmy! Where are you? Help! Someone took my child!” in the middle of a crowded mall. But you CAN spend time people watching in the mall, studying how parents watch (or don’t watch) their children, imaging which (innocent) person might be likely to kidnap a child. NOTE: Try not to act too suspicious here or they will think you are casing the joint and you might get more attention than you desire.
If your character is a bad boy who happens to love driving fast cars a little recklessly on winding mountain roads, you shouldn’t do that, either. But when you sit behind your own steering wheel, you don’t even need to start the car to put your hand on the gearshift and go back to your childhood, to the days when you liked to sit or stand behind the steering wheel of your parents’ car and “vroom, vroom.” Let your imagination take you on those winding mountain roads. Maybe your character enjoys the thrill of taking the curves too fast, of driving close to the edge, tempting the hand of fate, when one too-slow reflex might send him hurtling over a cliff. With your hand on the steering wheel of your safely parked car, send that writer’s imagination off to the mountains and think like your wild hero–how does he feel as he downshifts through the turns? Put your hand on the gearshift (make one up if you drive an automatic), visualize the road, feel it through the brake pedal, hear the wind through your window. See that turn up ahead? Will you make it? Do you care?
When you’re grocery shopping, something everyone does in one form or another, become your hero/heroine while you go through the store (another word of advice here–if your hero has a taste for anchovies and you hate them, don’t buy them unless you plan to make friends with the neighbor’s cat). You are your character, perhaps a little gritty around the edges, perhaps kind of a hermit. How do you respond to the crowd on a Saturday morning, with the screaming kids running everywhere, or the elderly people parking their carts in the middle of the aisle? Or that clueless bachelor thumping every watermelon and smelling every onion? Remember, you are the character…notice how you’re reacting to the stimuli around you.
On the road to home, can your character wait to get out of the city? How does it feel to have to follow the conventions of city driving when he longs for his reckless assault on the winding mountain roads?
Become your character as you clean your house or cook dinner. What does your character think about such things? Is he/she confident or awkward in the kitchen? Are you babysitting, or staying at home with the kids? Think in terms of how your character would react to the sudden encroachment on his turf of a kid. Be your character while you’re working, driving, having fun, standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. What thoughts cross your mind?
You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) do anything extreme to get into your characters’ heads, but even as you carry out your daily activities, you can think in terms of your character. You don’t even have to (and probably won’t) use this research in specific passages of your writing (though people watching is a great way to learn descriptive writing). But your character will come to life as part of you, and when you write from his/her point of view, you will be amazed how easily your hero/heroine’s voice will pop up in your creative mind.
If you’re a writer, tell me some creative ways you get in touch with your characters!