If your story sounds stilted or scripted, the believability of your characters might be the problem. Readers get to know them through your words, how they participates in the plot, and their introspective comments. Readers don’t like when the protagonist or antagonist or any of the individuals they’ve spent hours getting to know and love act, well, out of character.
Get to know your character–intimately–before you cast them. Know their favorite colors, movies, songs. Know their morals, educational background, weaknesses and strengths. Know them as though they were your child, or your best friend.
I’d suggest writing a profile. Not just a few paragraphs, but pages. Once you’ve completed that (see below), throw the character into situations and see if you can predict how they would act. If you know them well enough, you’ll find you can keep all of their thoughts, reactions, and movements, in character.
In my case I write a prequel to my story so I can flesh out the characters, their actions, thoughts, feelings. It’s not for publication (well, maybe as a prequel after people have met the characters in a later time frame. I’m still pondering that.) but it makes me comfortable that even the surprises in my novel are in character.
I’m a little crazy about getting them right. You might be able to do it in a shorter amount of effort.
You can get lists of background questions from the books in this blog’s sidebar. Here are traits I use to flesh out my characters:
- What is their ruling passion–what makes them tick?
- How old are they?
- Describe them physically including abnormalities, allergies, scars, deformities, posture, bearing.
- Describe them psychologically, including their fears, manias, inhibitions, patterns of behavior, special abilities, soundness of reasoning, habits. Are they irritable? Are they sensible? What are longings, aptitudes, special talents?
- What are their emotional firestorms, like ambition, love, hate, greed, vengefulness, lust, envy, malice?
- What is their purpose in the story?
- What is their position in the story–antagonist, protagonist, confidante?
- What are their speech patterns?
- How does their voice sound? Breathy? Gravelly? Mellow?
- Do they have nervous ticks, gestures, mannerisms (everyone does–what are theirs?) Do they tug on an ear?
- Take the time to go through their typical day–work, jog, visit the health club, drink coffee at Starbucks. Then when they do something out of this routine, you can explain it.
- What are their strengths and weaknesses?
- What is their work life like?
Enough? You’ll know when you write the character into a scene. Is there any time that you aren’t sure how your character should behave? If there is, add more detail to your list.
Do you have any other questions you ask of your character? I’d like to learn from your experience.