I’ve been writing (creatively) since Junior High School and at one point considered a career in writing. After talking to people that were actually trying to make a living at writing though, decided to change directions and go into engineering, hence my current job at for NASA.
However, writing has always been a love of mine and a few years ago when I came up with an idea for a story, I decided to kick of the process and actually sit down and write a book. For months, I focused on my characters, developed backstory, quirks, traits, motivations, fears. And once I had a collection of what I felt were interesting characters, I put them in the middle of an impossible situation. The “ah-ha” moment came after about 10 chapters in. I had an idea about a scene, what would be said, and how it would play out. I had it all planned. I started writing and one of my characters “told me” that he would never act like that or say those things. What? I’m the author. I know what is going to happen here and I give the orders. He told me I can do whatever I want but if I am going to do this right that the other people in the scene are dellusional. And that he wanted to tell them and slap them in the face with reality. The scene went in a completely different direction than I originally intended. I realized in that moment that my characters were alive (at least in my mind). They were in control and I learned to listen to them. I would ask them, “Tell me, Thomas, what would you do in this situation? Daxman, what do you think about this?” It became a very useful tool in my writing and helped the story, actions, and dialogue stay consistent with the true nature of the characters. In a real sense, they were in control and I became their scribe.
That’s my “ah-ha” moment.
As far as a call to action, I would encourage new writers not only to know their characters but to create characters that have real and relatable flaws. People in real life have a spectrum of flaws and for characters to be relatable, elements of them should reflect people in the lives of the reader. Some people are narcissists, others are sweet, disgruntled, stubborn, courageous or loyal to a fault, prone to following others, looking for something missing in their lives, reclusive, insecure, paranoid, risk averse. They have different values, religious beliefs, political affiliations. Characters have different ways of talking and relating to people and authority figures, and different levels of emotional intelligence as well as intellect. This is just the start to understanding your characters.
I would encourage writers to know their characters well enough to describe them on these levels at a minimum. The more work done at this level, the easier writing the story will become.