This may sound weird, but I analyze the heck out of my main characters when it comes time to create a story outline. Before the plot goes anywhere or I write the first paragraph, I think of these very important people and take some time to find out what makes them tick.
It's my belief that unless you do this exercise, you'll end up with flat, two-dimensional stick-figures blabbing about nothing to each another, droning on and on for three hundred or more pages. Boooring.
You gotta dig deep. I mean really deep, because if you cannot get the reader to feel for your character, feel something, then they'll slam the book shut. In our house, a shallow book like that gets gently tossed across the room, and then donated the next day.
You see, in order for the reader to elicit some kind of feeling or response towards a character, we've got to discover some specifics about that character to make them truly believable.
Pretend you're sitting down with the character for coffee, or do as I do and invite them to recline on the analysis couch by my writing nook and start taking notes. See how they feel about different subjects. Watch Billy Crystal in the clip below from "Analyze This", and reveal their secret demons. Find out what is going on in the head of your character and tell the story. And don't be afraid to push their buttons a little. Make em' mad. Get them to spill the beans, because you want the whole truth and nothing but the truth...even if your story is about a gangster who doesn't want to kill anymore.
Here's a cheat sheet with a few good starter questions to ask your characters:
- Where did you grow up?
- Have you ever suffered a trauma or heartbreak?
- What frightens you?
- What do you do for a living?
- If money were no object what would you do for a living?
- What goals do you have?
- Is there anyone who makes you mad? What did they do to you?
- Do you want to get back at that person?
- What's the one person/thing that keeps you from attaining your biggest goal in life?
- Where do you buy your clothes? How do you describe your style?
And you can go on and on with this exercise, asking whatever questions you like, but the key is don't stop until you feel like you know this character really well. When you hit that point, move on to the next character. When you've discovered who the main players are to be in your manuscript, then it's time to either do as I do and start creating the plot outline, or if you're a pantser, go for it and start typing away.
How do you pry the secrets out of your main characters, getting them to spill their desires and goals? Tell us about it!