I have been in the practice of writing now for quite some time. I have been to numerous conferences and sat under the tutelage of very gifted authors, both at these live events and in my study of craft through books and blogs. One of the key things I have come to discover is that character development is pre-eminent in the novel. If the reader doesn’t care about your characters, they won’t hang in there for the story. So, your characters are what drives it all.
Every author has their own method for character development. I personally think it’s important to take time BEFORE you start writing the story (or even outlining) to get to know at least your main characters (at least those who will have scenes told from their point of view). Some writers “interview” their character. I have a profile sheet that has a list of things I feel I should know about my character (physical appearance, mental abilities, socioeconomic level now and as a child, sibling/parent relationships, etc.). Look up some character profile sheets, come up with your own. But I would recommend including Goals, Motivations, and Conflicts (External and Internal) on your sheet.
These are all sort of surface sort of things, however. I also LOVE Susan May Warren’s “Story Equation” (or “SEQ”) where you break down the character’s Dark Moment Story (something significant that happened in their past that made them who they are today). The Dark Moment Story will lead to character flaws, the lie the character believes about him/herself, the character’s competing values, and so much more. These deepen your understanding of your character which makes the character deeper for the reader. Something that is important to note here is that you may not want to put EVERYTHING you develop about your character on the page. It’s a “tip of the iceberg” kind of thing. Whereas you show the tip of the iceberg, but you (the author) know the entire iceberg that is under the surface. This makes the character more three dimensional and more real.
I always try to “cast” my characters too. It helps with visualizing my characters throughout the book and makes them more real for me, too. I keep a Pinterest board on each of my books with photos of who I would cast in each of the roles as well as a variety of other photos of places, food, and photos from that period/place that relate to the novel. It’s just fun to play around with. You can find my pinterest boards here.
At the end of the day…
Characters are people too. They are only as real as you make them. And they are only as real to your readers as you make them. It is worth the time and effort to put the work in on the front end (in my experience). Give it a go and see what you come up with!