(Blogger's Note: Joe Vasicek is a fellow author who also sports a red beard. He has published an assortment of short stories on Kindle and recently released a full length novel, Genesis Earth, complete with hot cover art on Kindle as well. You should go check it out; links to the novel and blog are after the article)
When it comes to writing characters, I like to keep two rules in mind:
1) Every character is the hero of his/her own story
2) Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end
The first rule basically means that if I wanted to recast my novel with any given NVC (non viewpoint character) as a VC, the story should be about them, not about someone else. It doesn't mean that everyone should be heroic; the Joker sees himself as the "hero" (or "main character") of his own story, but I'm pretty sure he doesn't think of himself as a hero.
The second rule is so obvious it seems like it shouldn't bear mentioning, but if you stop to think about it, you'd be surprised. When applied to characters and character arcs, it basically means that every character should have an origina and a destiny: some kind of backstory (including parents/siblings or lack thereof), and some sense of where their life is heading.
Backstory helps out a ton in figuring out a character's motivations: not just what they want but why they want it. For example, in Genesis Earth I wanted my main character (Michael Anderson) to be the son of two of Earth's most brilliant scientists. Consequently, I figured he would feel a tremendous amount of pressure to live up to their legacy.
But it didn't end there. These scientists had left with a team to create mankind's first artificial wormhole, but because playing with naked singularities is dangerous (seriously, don't try it at home), they had to spend several years traveling across space to get far enough away to experiment safely. Consequently, Michael has never set foot on Earth--but he's grown up with constant reminders of the planet, since his parents miss their home world so much.
From that, I figured that Michael would develop an unhealthy obsession with Earth. This connected very well with my original story idea, since I wanted him to explore an Earthlike world. It's one thing to describe a setting the way that anyone would see it; it's quite another to describe it through the eyes of someone who has a deep personal interest in what he sees.
For the main female character (Terra Beck), I wanted someone with the exact opposite set of motivations--someone who would provide conflict, and thus drive the story. If Michael wanted to go on the mission because of the pressure from his parents to be a world-renowned scientist, I figured Terra would just want to get away from everyone and everything. To give her that motivation, I made her parents divorced; in a small, enclosed community like a space station, I figured that a nasty divorce would be a hard thing to grow up with, especially if everyone on the station took sides. So even though Terra agrees to the mission, she doesn't really care about it.
Motivation is about more than what your characters want: it's why they want what they want. You can break it down by playing the annoying five year old kid and asking them "why?" over and over. Done well, it's inextricably connected with their origin and destiny; it grows out of their backstory and informs the sense of direction in their lives.
Strengths and weaknesses also grow out of origin and destiny. For Terra, I figured she would grow up as something of an outcast, hating everyone around her. Consequently, I figured she'd develop some disorders. One of the funnest parts of writing the book was taking an online diagnostics test to see what mental illnesses she was predisposed to. I did this after I'd finished the rough draft, so I had some sense of who she was already, and used that to answer the questions as if I were here. The test results gave me a ton of delicious material to work with.
So those are the things I keep in mind when developing my characters. I don't believe in following a set method or running down a long checklist, since every character is different. Sometimes, I just toss them in as I'm writing, and things turn out great. Other times, I take detailed personality tests and outline a long and complicated backstory. But every time I add a new character, I ask myself: "what's this character's story?" If I don't feel that there's at least the potential to write an interesting novel from their point of view, I stop and figure them out.
Why? Because I believe Neil Gaiman was right when he said:
"Everybody has a secret world inside of them...no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside, inside them they've all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds. Not just one world--hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe."
And that is one of the biggest reasons why I love being a writer.
Joe Vasicek is a science-fiction writer who pretty much knows what is going down. His novel, Genesis Earth, is an exceptionally well-edited and well-produced sci-fi extravaganza complete with wormholes, first contacts, space stations, and cryofreeze. Basically you've got everything you could ever want in a science fiction novel going on in here. You can grab it off Amazon for your Kindle and enjoy a fantastic read. So go do it. Now. I'm waiting.