Job 1: Fall in love with your characters
As an author who is now beginning my 27th book project I'm now figuring out my characters. My novels are action-oriented thrillers, but rely on strong characters to carry the plot. In my latest thriller, Man of Honor, I wanted my readers to say, "Yes, I can see how she'd think or do that. Makes sense."
But equally as important in this case, readers had to love Helen Schilling, the book's strong female lead. The first step in establishing that emotion is for me to love the character. How do I do that? I begin with someone who actually possesses at least some of the strengths and weaknesses I know this character must have. I wrote a 25 page bio each on Helen Schilling and her husband/co-star Jack Schilling. Helen is the logical, planner of the two. She's pretty, smart as a whip, and a demon behind a sniper scope. Jack is an American patriot and more given to brute force tactics. Together they make a formidable pair. I give my characters personality traits that I respect and admire. I craft their appearances and demeanors in ways I am happy to spend the months dancing with them as I write the book. Bottom line, if I don't love these characters, my readers won't either.
I always give my characters flaws--the heroes aren't all good and the villains have some redeeming qualities. This gives Li Yong, the villain in Man of Honor, multiple dimensions that readers can identify with and relate to. As the book develops if I need to change or add things to the characters I add that to the mix of traits. The most important thing is for my readers to care about the characters and what happens to them--even the villains.