When I first started writing in college, I began doing something interesting that would change the way I viewed characters forever: I kept a notebook whenever I rode the city bus. It’s an interesting mix of people who ride the bus for regular transit, and most of them are doing typical things that would otherwise appear uninteresting…unless you’re collecting characters. Take note of the details. Are they alone or with a buddy? To whom are they talking, or are they just staring out the window? Perhaps they’re having a scintillating conversation…with themselves (yes, I’ve seen this happen many times).
Bring your notebook with you and write everything down. Then try to give motive for why they are doing what they do, or why they wear what they wear. Extrapolate where they are going. Home? Work? School? Nowhere? Give them names if you can. Then try and create a brief dossier on things like their background, lifestyle, employment, education, hobbies, relationships…and you get the idea.
These types of exercises can be crucial for overcoming difficulties later on when trying to write fully rounded characters. And at the end of the day you’ll have a menagerie to choose from should you need to reach into the cage and select one. However, I’ve found because of the practice of collecting characters, I am fully prepared for the process when the need arises to create one from scratch.
One final, very important caveat for this exercise–do not, I repeat, do not take notes on people who are close to you. There is a twofold reason for this: (1) if you create a character based on someone you know well, they may not be as impressed as you with your creation; and (2) it can be like cheating to skip the hard work of learning how to extrapolate details by observing a complete stranger as opposed to simply writing down the intimate details of family or friends. It may be tempting, but don’t do it. Ever.
The only exception to this rule might be basing a created character on someone you know who has died, perhaps as a way to memorialize them. I have done this and it turned out beautifully. The character of Billy Pints in my book OLDE MYSTERIUM was loosely based on the cook at my fraternity in college. He was a salty individual with rough language that would curl your hair and had a heart of gold; a recovering alcoholic who, through chance and circumstance ended up cooking at a fraternity. A beautiful juxtaposition. And it was an honor to include him the story. He died my senior year from a heart attack…and I think about him all the time.
So go where you can to observe an interesting cross-section of people–the mall, the post office, the grocery store, a coffee shop or a dive bar. Or you could ride the bus like I did. And keep your wits about you as you never know when you’ll chance upon the perfect character.