Getting to know those characters

After having written 15+ books, starting #16 (not all in print, of course), you would think I could explain to you how I handle characterization. But sometimes the learning curve comes slowly. I eventually do come to know my characters, but until today as I brainstormed with my critique partner, did I truly understand what it takes for me to know the characters in my stories and hopefully make them real to the reader. So how do I get to know these characters?

Imagine moving to a new town, in a different country and time zone. You can't speak the language, don't know the culture, but you want to learn. So the first thing you might do is learn the language, but then you would immerse yourself in the culture. You would meet people at work, school, in the neighborhood, at the grocery store, at church. As you met people, you would discover which ones would become good friends, which ones would remain acquaintances, and which few you might consider your most intimate loved ones.

To know these things, you talk to people. Conversations tell us more than just information. They show us body language and expressions. And they tell us who these people are.

That's how I get to know my characters in each story. First I have to meet the characters by seeing their face (a picture on my Idea Board), then I have many conversations with them. Those conversations happen as I write the scenes. This is partly why writing the first draft is so difficult. If I could know these people outside of conversation, I might be able to just write descriptions on 3 x 5 cards or write summaries of each one. But that is not how I get to know real people, and it's not how I get to know my fictional ones.

If you are a writer and have a different process that works for you, I'm not suggesting mine is better. I just finally realized that the reason all of those "how to" ideas don't work for me is because none of them let me meet characters as though they are real people. How else do we get to know someone if we don't talk to them?

So I talk. And listen as they talk to each other. Those interactions with each other tell me who they are. And as that understanding grows, their story finally starts to make sense.

If you're a writer - what process do you use to enhance characterization?