I like Orson Scott Card (except for his politics, but Pixar's Adrian Molina can speak for me there) and I recently read his How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy and Characters and Viewpoint
We judge who someone is based on what we see them do. (A guy talking loudly, spilling his drink, and being rude we'd think was an obnoxious drunk)
But knowing why someone is behaving a certain way changes the impression. (if we know the hostess just cruelly ended the affair she was having with our "drunk" 5 minutes ago, we'd judge his actions differently.)
A character is what he does, but even more what he means to do. (difference between murderer and victim good at self defense)
And is defined by their past. (it matters if our adulterous drunk is married to a meek devoted wife, or if his first girlfriend had been so manipulative he's never been able to completely open up to a woman since)
You can let the reader know their reputation, and live up to it, or violate it (and show how they got it like a conman who pretends to be pious)
Stereotypes can be used as a quick fill in of a character, if the character's minor you can use stereotypes to not need to spend too much time on them (need a thug use a thug), you can also use them to break expectations (the old man in the poor fitting suit and bottle of wine in a paper bag could be a wino, or a cancer survivor making his way to a party)
Showing us the how a characters different social networks work and treat them informs us.
Specific details make fiction more real. Habits, preferences, and talents that a person has make them interesting and tell us about them. (been doing kickboxing for 12 years, carefully stacks his quarters, love of b movies)
Physical characteristics are not very important (unless it's a peg leg) let the reader flesh it out (they'll probably imagine themselves into it)
If you don't care about your character's your readers won't either, you are the first audience member, keep yourself interested and entertained.
Tools to making a character important: Ordinariness vs strangeness, amount of their "on screen" or talked about, how many plot characters their choices affect, how much everyone else focuses on them, frequency of appearance, how involved in the action they are, readers sympathy with them, are they narrating.
If you don't tell what the character's motives are the audience will assume the most obvious, cliche, boring ones. To make character's more believable we give them more complex and justified motives. Each new revelation of a character's motive doesn't just add information, it revises all the information that came before.
We want to know what the character's think and feel about what's going on around them, it clues us as to what we should think and feel about it too, and makes the character more alive. It is through attitude that we learn what people think about each other.
"what a day" she said.
Yeah, right. poor dear, couldn't she find a single dress that fit right?
"what a day" she said.
She could say anything right now, and it would be music. He didn't realize how much he missed her until she came back.
A character's expectations imply what their past experiences have been. How people view them and interact with them tell us who they are now. If you're character is changing their behavior, you don't have to show the cause before or during, but you need to let the audience know that the character's behaviour change is a mystery that will be cleared up (otherwise they just think you're a bad writer and can't keep track of your characters). The more important the character and the bigger the change the more time you have to spend making it believable.
Who's in the most pain? they have the biggest motivation for action, and the strongest ability to elicit sympathy from the reader. Who has the power and freedom to act? The greatest power to act unpredictably is usually found away from the center of power (the king can't just haul off and kill the ambassador, the way the kitchen boy in the alley can) If Captain Kirk acted like a captain he would never leave the ship putting himself in danger, that's the job of front line troops, of scouts.
The hero is who you are hoping will win, the main character is who you are most fascinated with, they are not necessarily the same. If the one who's making all the interesting decisions is the bad guy, you'll probably be spending a lot of time with him (like Darth Vader). The viewpoint character is the one we ride through the story with, who's view we most get to understand so will obviously be important to us. Dr. Watson is the viewpoint character, because if it were Sherlock Holmes we'd know who did it almost right away. The viewpoint character must be at the main events, actively involved in them, and have a personal stake in their outcome.
Tools for making readers care:
Pain: the more someone suffers, or inflicts it, the more important they are (but if it's repetitive it loses it's edge and gets funny) You increase the amount of pain by showing it's causes and effects (not by describing it with more detail). If you show us how much they loved, and how hard they work to cope after the loss, we'll believe it better. Pain is stronger with more choice, setting a broken leg is important, setting your own is even more so. Sacrifice raises the character's worth (love vs integrity). Jeopardy, anticipated pain, raises a character's value, the more vulnerable the more oomph (which is why children are such strong fictional victims), but jeopardy only works if the reader believe it can happen. Sexual Tension raises the stakes of both characters (as long as we believe they are attractive to each other) until they reach sexual harmony. If the character is a victim, they'll gain sympathy of the audience, but may loose some respect, you can try to show the character fought all the way, or is trying to cope with it but you may never get all the respect back. It's easy to like saviours, but if you want to make sure they stay liked make them reluctant to interfere, or give them an invitation to come in and save someone. Character's need to have a life, they have needs and plans that they are actively striving to fulfill, and if we understand their reasons and believe in them we'll be with them, don't just have them "doing nothing in particular". Readers respond to a character who is brave, plays fair, will take risks for what they believe in, doesn't gloat, and lose sympathy for characters who cheat or are cowardly. Character's attitude towards others, and towards themselves can help win the audience, if they man up and admit their mistakes, if they give people second chances, basically if they have good traits you would appreciate in real people. Volunteer or Draftee, gain sympathy if they volunteer for a crap job, or if they're mandatorily recruited for a glory one. Keep their words, if Pete holds onto the family farm, even though it's failing and everyone wants him to sell it, because he promised his dad on his death bed, the audience will be rooting for him, even though he's dragging the family down in flames, we admire those who stick to their word, and dislike people who make promises and break them. Audiences appreciate cleverness, quick thinking problem solving, but not intelligence because it's snooty and aristocratic. (Indiana Jones is great on his feet, but bumbling when teaching). Of course if you're character's perfect they won't be believable, so give them some endearing flaws (just keep the overall balance on the sympathetic attributes). Murder for selfish reasons or against those who don't deserve it earns dislike, but if it's to protect someone or punish someone who deserves it the murderer will gain audience sympathy. We hate people who appoint themselves, people who try and make themselves experts, but if they later earn their position and gain the respect of those around them they become okay. Actually crazy characters are never liked. You can soften your bad guys by partially justifying their actions.
Why? and What Result? questions that will build your story. Why are they doing that, what are they trying to avoid, or make happen? What made this happen, what was the purpose, what was the result? (What happens when your 12? you can babysit. What happens when you babysit? baby cries. Why? Sick. What do you do? Burp it? no. Call the Dr.? no too sick. Grab the baby and run to get help. Why didn't you wait for the ambulance? mom died waiting before ambulance arrived. etc. brainstorm quickly splintering ideas off, chasing interesting ones, circling back if you hit dead ends. Don't just take the 1st good enough answer. 1000 questions in an hour.) It's fiction, exaggerate some, make it a tale worth hearing. Try taking an assumption and giving it a twist, (baby's sick because it's actually in the final stages of an evolution cycle, and becomes a luminous being) If it's a setting or an idea you want to start with you can ask "who suffers most in this situation. Beware the cliche, the easy first answers.
Ideas come from life. If you see something that catches your eye, play with the idea. A guy eating a banana. Looks like it's covering his face - maybe he's going to make an entire biohazard suit out of banana peels. Everyday, everywhere, get your brain in the practice of being creative and playful. Use the people in your life, take the passion your sister had for horses and the struggle she went through working in the barn to afford it and put that into an elderly character trying to learn to dog sled race. Take a random time from your history and wander forwards or backwards in your memory until you find something juice, your high school chemistry teacher letting your make a fool of yourself in front of the class as you try to figure out an experiment, and put it into a new place like a wife trying to start a new career in the husbands field and the husband letting her fail so she could "do it on her own".
Or Ideas that the story needs. Who must be there? (If you want to do a story about a princess locked in a castle, you're gonna need her jailer.) Who might be there? (maybe the princess strikes up a friendship with the rats in the tower) Who has been there? (is the jailer's real problem with the princess' mother?)
All of Cards stories marinated for a long time before he wrote them, years sometimes, and often he combined two unrelated ideas to get one story.
1st Contract with the Readers: Readers will expect the story to be over when the first major cause of structural tension is resolved. So if a man is murdered we won't be satisfied until the murderer is caught,but if a woman is widowed we won't be satisfied until she has established her new role in life, even if both of these stories use the same characters and events, it matters what starts it off. All good stories do NOT have to have full characterization. Character stories do, but we never cared what Indiana Jones' father was like in the first two flicks because they were Event stories. You need to be able to write interesting and believable characters, but not necessarily take the reader through the results of your heroes angsty teenage rejections. "Characterization is not a virtue it is a technique, you use it when it will enhance your story, and when it won't you don't." So what part of the story are you most interested in telling? Of course you can mix it up, and use all the parts for different kinds of sub plots, but knowing the main type of story helps you structure and prioritize and decide how much characterization you need.
Milieu is about WHERE the main character is. When you are most interested in the surroundings: suburban life? Tolkein's world? Deep characterization isn't needed, character's can stand in as representatives. LoTR fellowship has 1 dwarf, 1 ranger, 1 elf, 1 smeagel etc. Tolkein spends time talking about history or daily life of hobbits, or how treebeard and his pals think about things. Starts when the main character heads off to see the world, ends when they've seen it, maybe having been transformed by it. Frodo isn't done when the ring goes into the lava, or when they kick wormtongue out of the shire, he's done when him and all the elves check out and it's the end of the age. Dorothy's not done when she kills the witch, she's done when she gets home.
Idea story is about How the main character solves a puzzle. When you're most interested in the process of solving a puzzle. Murder mysteries, Capers, and Sci-Fi where the ship needs a part, are all examples. Characterization doesn't really need to go further then maybe a few eccentricities to differentiate and make the characters entertaining, and everyone having their own reason to have killed the bastard. You could go high-brow and have each character be a symbol of something, like Mr. Compassion vs Mr. Greed. Sometimes the detective needs to be good at figuring out what kind of person someone is, but rarely does anyone experience growth or change in a story. The story starts when the puzzle is posed (mystery is so established that the readers will give the author some leeway to actually get going), and ends when it's solved.
Character story is about WHO the main character is. When you are most interested in what makes someone who they are and how they go about changing. You're main character is the one who's changing triggers everyone else. The conflict that drives the story is when the main character can no longer stand to be in the roles they are in, so they try to change their roles in their social circles, or change their social circles, and of course the ripples from there. Sometimes the break from the old role is easy and the story is about the search for the new one (coming of age). Sometimes the break is very difficult and the story is about how to make it happen (escaping a manipulative relationship). The most complex character stories to write are the ones where someone tries to change themselves without loosing their relationships (becoming a strong independent woman while keeping the old world husband.) Starts when the character must transform from the roles they are in, ends when they have
Event story is about WHAT the main character does. When you are most interested in trying to set the world right. There's an evil king raising an evil army(Indiana Jones & the arc). There's a love that can not be allowed, yet can not be denied(wurthering heights). There's a great crime that has been committed and justice must be meted (macbeth) Deep characters aren't necessary to get the story told, we don't know much about Lancelot other then his main roles. Starts when the person crucial to righting the balance gets involved, ends when they have or have failed completely.
2nd Contract: the more time you spend on something the more significant to the story. Don't spend 3 chapters talking about the characters first dog unless something like the dogs habit of putting slippers in the empty dog food tin leads the hero to find the final clue in the dog food container.
Suspense is not created by withholding information, suspense comes from giving almost all the information so the reader is involved in the characters and cares about them so really wants to know how the tiny bit of key information that has been withheld will decide the characters' fate. In other words, the only information you keep back is what is going to happen next.
Show Don't Tell, sometimes:
Fiction is life with the boring bits left out. Telling is giving the information needed from the boring bits, without living through it. "they went through 19 file drawers, paper by paper. They cracked open books that had 10 years of dust on them. Even after all that searching they almost missed the answer when they found it."= compressing a day of tedious searching through telling. Showing is making the reader live through the event with the characters. The important dramatic scenes are relatively rare, but the take the most space because it takes a lot more space to show then tell, which makes these the scenes that stick with the reader afterwards.
Card talks a lot in both books about the art of language, what kind of voice and tense and viewpoint to use, how to make phrases presentational vs representational. Honestly, at the moment, all of that stuff is over my head. I figure it will take some practice of me actually writing to have enough foundation to absorb and use those ideas.