This is one of my favourite past times and something I’ve done so much I sort of find myself doing it automatically a lot of the time.
To start with, obviously, I pick a character. I try to choose one that has more than just the basic cannon to work with. Something like a Jane Austen character or where a film has been made about a book. Most of the time having two sources to work from helps. On top of that if I’m using film as my source material I make sure it’s an actor I know reasonably well. It helps to have an idea of how they interpret characters and what sort of dynamic they will bring to the part. Finally I take a character that interests me in some way.
I then read or watch everything that character is in, paying attention to dialogue, body language (if film) and emotional reactions to events. There’s so much to learn about a character and most of it is between the lines so I just start with this and then grow out from there if I want to. If there’s a lot of stuff. I’ll just grab the original works and some of the bigger adaptations or extensions.
Through their dialogue and emotions you can get a feel for what makes them tick, their level of education, what they think of themselves and others and what sort of personality they’ve got. If they speak well they may have been to a posh school or they may be a little vain. Through their emotional reactions you can work out what hang ups their past might have given them as well as whatb their goals and dreams might be.
While a lot of this is included in the story if you’re studying a main character, studying the bad guy or the secondary characters often leaves you wanting on the details of their past and why they might be the way they are, and this is where the character study comes in handy the most. A lot of our personality and the way we act is governeed by our past. Take the phantom in the musical. In the film they made he comes across as a passionate a genius and very much in love with Christine. We also get shown the cruelty he’s faced because of his disfigurement and can then make the choice to pity him because a lack of love has made him so aggressively possessive of his own love’s object of affection.
In the original book, the phantom is more disfigured, more crazy and appears to take more delight in harming people for the sake of harming people, leaving us pitying him less. Our ability to pity comes out of analysing his actions and understanding whether they are coming out of his own pain or some sadistic desire to hurt others.
I try to make as few assumptions as possible, prefering to stick to the facts but certain behaviours usually match up with certain past experiences and the more character studies you’ll do the more you’ll get a feel for the types of logical leaps you can make about them.
When I’m satisfied I know the character as much as I can, I often start to brainstorm what if scenarios for them. I start with what sort of person would be able to make friends with them and gain their trust and then move onto romantic attachments. What would their ideal partner be like, how would their initial meetings go. For some characters I have many many possibilities for these but a few characters (often the more complex and untrusting ones), I can sometimes list several possible scenarios for a first meeting and the different personality types and find flaws in a lot of them, but eventually I arrive with something workable.
With all that done I often write a brief bit of dialogue intensive meeting of two characters. The one I’ve come up with as a friend or romantic attachement and my character study (On the few rare occasions I’ve been unable to decide on a suitable extra character, or when I’m struggling to get my head around the character and want to explore him or her a bit further before taking it too far, I might use myself as the extra character). This then gives me the opportunity to see if I can get into the character study enough to write as if I’m them, and explore their reactions and dialogue for myself.
Often this is where I end. If I’m satisfied with having an introduction to them and enjoy it I might continue, which is where my Mycroft fan-fiction has come from, but for the most part I consider myself satisfied and like I’ve understood the character as best as I can with the information I have. Very occasionally I come back to one years later and write the meeting point again from a different place.