I have been considering a lot of options lately in terms of what to write about in short stories. Sometimes, characters and their personalities speak to me in an instant. Other times, I get them by virtue of a second draft. You see them a lot more clearer when you have to sit down, hunker into what you've got after that initial vomit draft, and the material finds itself coming to you. The other example is not so much fun as it means that everything is a struggle, that you don't really see who the character is until the last draft.
It's creepy how well you can see a person that you created. Especially when you've got a good burn on and you are writing an entire book or story with the person in mind. Their actions may alter some of their character but then again, everything is a composite of what several people would look like, combined into one.
Comparisons to characters fold themselves into each other depending on the actions and verbiage they provide. Everyone has to have experiences which makes them different. You can make a racist person just be a racist, but that is cliche. So is the thinking hero who pines for true love. I see every character, even the side ones, as complex creatures. No person is merely an animal in how they react to things. They are influenced by the actions of others.
Plans are not formal, but complex alterations which sometimes happen on the fly depending on the reactions of other people.
In fictional stories, why do accidents not happen to others for no reason whatsoever? No given plan or point. Just an accident.
Coming to the bar today to watch the NHL playoffs (Bruins got 2 goals in 33 seconds, hot damn), I saw a person pulled over for a speeding ticket. Or maybe it was something else. But why is that not something that I would see in a fictional story? Not as a plot point, but a decision of mundane behavior in which we all have some point of experience? If you are writing relatable material, I believe that the mundane becomes interesting because people can understand how it happens. It makes characters more real in terms of how readers react to them.
People focus on flaws, but are those the only things which make a character relatable? I went to a person's home recently and saw two photographs of orphans in Africa that the person was sponsoring. What struck me was that my attention was never put there by the person attempting to prove their charity. It took me seeing it by accident to witness the kindness of the person who had done that without the need for acclaim.
I was told by a person that they appreciated my passion for a project at work. That I didn't appear to come to work with the intention of doing less than my job. What amazes me is how many people run around an office, attempting to tell everyone within earshot how hard their job is, how much credit they deserve. This is a character too, whether they notice it or not within themselves.
The key to character development is to recognize this. Even if it does not progress the story as much as it does the people experiencing the plot.
Character options may also alter the plot to a certain extent. Some movies, books don't allow for this. The characters are beholden to continue the plot, regardless of whether they would in real terms. I don't have any idea what tomorrow holds for me, aside from the basics of going to work, things on my calendar, etc. But that doesn't mean that I am soaked into a plot so much that I wouldn't be able to get out of those commitments if I needed to. Especially if a terrorist was holding my family hostage. Yes, I would call in and request a sick day for that.
One of the more annoying things about side characters is that they are servants to the plot without any thought to who they are. Guys who follow you when they shouldn't in order to push you toward the goal. Other people who call the detective to say "come by so I can reveal what's really going on" but by the time the detective reaches them, that "confessor" is dead. These are not only bad cliches but bad characters.
I don't think it keeps suspense going to have someone not reveal what's going on when they already know. That type of writing got stale ever since twitter and facebook became the rage. Even when the Pakistani know this. Look up the guy who accidentally twittered the raid on Osama bin Laden's palace but didn't know it. People don't function as they used to in terms of communication. Everything is so instant that if there is information out there, people have it.
And according to AT&T and Verizon, I should be able to get cell phone "bars" just about everywhere. Except in Whitman County, Washington. Trust me, I've been there with a flat tire by the side of a dirt road. The tallest thing around besides an evergreen tree was a combine going through a field of wheat. But the perception plays on reality that you will get reception everywhere instantly. So readers aren't going to buy the idea that you aren't going to get cell phone reception (even when it's actually true).
Or my favorite. The talking killer or the silent killer. The guy that either chats your ear off or says nothing, points a gun, fires and you're dead. That is cliche even though it is hard to find a medium. But there should be a medium or a change of character which makes the reader interested. Otherwise, you bore the reader, yourself and your writing. I've read some passages of my own work that sounds boring (that's why it doesn't see the light of day).
Characters don't have to be cardboard cut-outs anyway. Maybe the person who is abusive actually is a good person, they just don't know any better. Perhaps they were conditioned to abuse out of fear. There is something original. The idea that people don't purposely cause harmful actions. Because the majority of the time, they don't. In fact, the majority of people willfully attempt to avoid causing harm to others, and end up doing it anyway.
A newspaper photographer is on assignment and needs some photos of a the city zoo at night to show the harmful conditions that the animals are living in. If he does not get them, the editor-in-chief will fire him and his girlfriend, the reporter, will not get her story printed above the fold. It may cost him his relationship with her, and hurt his aspirations to work for National Geographic.
He goes to the zoo at night, careful with his camera. But there is risk because the zoo doesn't allow unauthorized photographs. He finds a guard willing to take fifty dollars to let him into the cages, just for a quick shot or two, enough to get what he needs, then get out. The photographer takes snaps some shots, no worry, then does one of the gorilla cage. No worry even though he wakes up the gorilla who gets upset. He and the guard leave, but the guard doesn't set the gate to the gorilla cage correct.
A few hours later, the gorilla goes through the gate because he can. He rages through the zoo, kills the guard, and escapes into the city. Now, there is a gorilla loose. This is a large problem. People are hurt, dying, and there the National Guard are called out. A maniac General who is about to be forcibly retired for his lunacy arrives in a helicopter and takes command of the situation (he is compared to Gen. LeMay for his advocation of nuking Iraq to stop the insurgency).
The General decides to declare martial law until the gorilla is captured, ends up killing civilians who resist. He remembers a battle in Viet Nam where the citizens were helping the Cong kill soldiers and aims to thwart that before it begins. His ideas were never accepted by the brass, even when he became one of them. This is his chance, now that his wife, Martha, is gone. He has a division of men, mostly National Guard with a few enlisted soldiers who are loyal to him.
The General believes that the gorilla's release was part of a terrorist act. If people were following the law, they would not be out on the street. Now, he is indifferent as the gorilla goes loose. When they catch the gorilla, it wouldn't stop the accidents. After initial gun down, everyone may calm for a moment, but you still have the problem of citizens who have been shot. The General keeps martial law in effect, ordering the troops to find a tape that he believes the citizens have.
This tape would show that the General ordered the death of civilians. Stood them up in front of a wall, had them shot to death because they defied his orders. Another soldier finally stands up to stop the General, he at first attacked by the other troops as being disloyal, then fights them until they see his way, forcibly. The lone protagonist gets the General under arrest, is thanked by his government, but never trusted by his fellow troops again as being disloyal.
Now you have a large scale problem. This was not caused by someone attempting to do harm to anyone. They just screwed up. The pressure created by side characters was not to hurt anyone. It just happened. Everything was an accident which compounded an accident. This goes into the idea of a traffic ticket. There was no "plot" plan. Everything happened and dealing with it as a result is what is recognizable to the reader.
Now look at that example. I fashioned that out of thin air with the idea it was just a gorilla I was going to talk about. And then, what happened? It became a microcosm of the escalation of an isolated incident into martial law, people's rights and the use of fear. And who watches the gates.
The General in this could be a guy who drinks, sure. But he has been dealing well with the death of his brother who looked just like him. His niece can't deal with that fact, because it reminds her of looking at her father when she sees him. Aside from that, the General has always been a good man but felt ignored by the top brass. He is essentially a horse-holder at the Pentagon who graduated second in his class at West Point. He feels after three theaters of war, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia, leading command divisions through each, that he should be respected. That his opinions should be heard.
But he made the wrong enemies. He is out-spoken in his beliefs and it has cost him. You see that every time he sits down to dinner with someone. His wife pretends not to notice as he rants about this or the other. This is the cause for many of his problems. His tirades and tangents about nothing that meant everything to him.
Maybe what I've written about the General is a cliche offers some idea of personalization.
There is a lot more than you could add.
This synopsis would help you further in a story understand who the character is. What the story explains beyond what you have in mind currently. That's the beauty of writing. Until you put your figurative pen down, the story keeps growing...