Many things I've learned over the years are self taught. When I worked as a graphic designer at a local newspaper, I was unfamiliar about the software being used to create advertising. Slowly, through the months, I discovered new things to be done with the program others hadn't.
So it was with writing. I didn't know anything about outlining, or formatting, or even too much editing, but throughout the years, I developed a system that worked for me. When I started writing my first action mystery, I knew what type of character I wanted as my protagonist. Since, she has developed into a deeper character with more flaws and more personality. At the time, though, I sat with pen in hand and wrote a very basic character outline. Along with her general description, I listed her favorite color, flower, food/drink, car, clothing, music, books. Nobody told me to do this and I didn't read any guidelines out of a how-to book. This just made sense to me to do this to better understand about whom I was writing.
Years later, I read about a more in-depth character outline. This included background information, childhood memories, past employment, etc. Also included was a guideline to understand the character in that particular story. I liken it to actors preparing for a scene. What's their motivation? What's their goal? What are their obstacles? How are the obstacles overcome? These series of questions can be used for every character in every scene and for the story as a whole. However, the trap into which some writer may fall is taking this too far. I know a writer whose character description included almost soap opera like dimensions. While this may be fine to jot down, do those miscellaneous factoids have any bearing on the present story? If not, I think time has been wasted when actual writing could have been done.
One of the difficulties I encountered was in the physical description of the characters. Brown eyes, dark brown hair, and medium build are so common, and I get bored reading about the same person in many books. For me, I had to develop a mental image of each character and I based the looks on various people I knew whether they be friends, classmates, or people in the public eye such as movie or television actresses.
Mallory Petersen, in Beta, was an easy character to develop. Basically, she is me as a female, with a little more flair, better looks, and better martial arts skills. I just took many of my traits, likes and dislikes, and used them to create Mallory. The drug lord in the story has the suave looks of Powers Booth while one of the cops takes his attractiveness from Nicholas Cage. One of the bad guys has an avian visage. Many characters were drawn from actual people I encountered while doing research. The stern secretary. The flustered receptionist.
For my first book, Night Shadows, background plays a large role for each of the two protagonists. Harry Reznik is married to an attractive woman and feels lucky to have her for a wife. He attended almost three years at the university unable to decide upon a career choice…until he met his future wife. She helped to develop his character throughout their marriage. For Lori Campisi, her background is mystery, and her struggle against amnesia and the revelations are part of the story. I knew the personality I wanted to portray and had a mental image of her features. The medical examiner has, "Tom Brokaw handsomeness." The Lieutenant is drawn from a model in a magazine. Reznik compares FBI Agent Campisi to Spock because of her control over exhibiting emotions.
Good authors will bring their characters off the pages and put them into the reader's mind's eye. Of course, every person's conception of a particular character may be different than another's, but differing views are the beauty of imagination and what make the books enjoyable.