A few years back I purchased a number of how-to books for the writer, most focused on writing mysteries. All came highly recommended with many excellent reviews. I studied them in great detail and tried many of the ideas. And my conclusion? Save your money.
Most of these books suggested creating an extensive back-stories, especially for one’s main characters. That may work for some people, but it’s not for me. I find it more useful to allow a character to develop organically in much as same way as real world relationships.
Take my good friend Jim for example. I know that he was born and raised in Chicago, joined the service right out of high school, spent time as a bandsman in Japan where he discovered a love of acting. Got a BA and later an MA in theater, acted all over the country, and finally settled in Ashland, OR, the home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. After several seasons at the festival, he married and became a teacher.Obviously, I did not learn these things all at once, but over a period of some 35 years.
I also have a character by the name of Jericho Pike. He started out as a secondary player in a story I was developing, but he soon became a primary character who, later this year, will be featured in his own series. Pike was born in Chicago, ran away from home at the age of 13, and survived by doing odd jobs around the railroad. Lying about his age, he enlisted in 1917 and served in the trenches of the Western front. After the war, he bummed around Europe for an undetermined time. Returning to the US, Pike landed a job with the Pinkerton’s as a railway detective. After several years, he struck out on his own and currently works a highly sought after railroad PI. He is quite intelligent and well read, though he is almost entirely self-educated. Oh yes, he also looks like Lee Marvin.
Pike’s back-story developed gradually and continues to develop. Every time I write him into a scene, I learn something new. For example, I recently discovered he dislikes coffee and prefers tea, Darjeeling in particular.
The best characters reveal themselves much like real people, a little at a time. From my point of view, the best way to develop a character is toss out the forms and questionnaires, sit your butt in the chair, put pen to paper and let them tell you their story.