Some writers use worksheets to get to know their characters. They want to know everything about the characters' backstories, their height and eye color, their likes and dislikes, what they had for breakfast, and so on.
I've tried such worksheets a couple of times, but could
never get into them. What has worked for me is doing little
outtakes--scenes or backstory exercises that don't appear in the
finished book, but that help me get in touch with the point of view,
motives, and history of my secondary characters.
I let the characters ramble on about whatever they care to tell me. For example, here is Austin, the spoiled rich kid from The Secret Year, reminiscing about his relationship with his late girlfriend, Julia:
liked to drive fast. She liked writing ... that didn't interest me too
much, but I had my sports, and nobody says couples have to like all the
same things. She was better in school than me. She liked to go mope off
alone by the river or in the park or wherever, I didn't even know all
the places. Sometimes she told me she drove through the flats and
imagined what it would be like to live there.
"Once we saw an old
Mexican woman sitting outside a gas-station rest room, and Julia got
all excited about what it would be like to be that woman. She went over
and tried to get the woman's life story, but the woman only spoke
Spanish and didn't seem to want to tell her bio to a complete stranger.
I went back to school, I wouldn't let people talk to me about Julia. I
told them I didn't want to discuss it, and they respected that. I missed
her like hell but I thought I should move on, you know. Otherwise I was
afraid I'd sit in that pit forever. After a couple of weeks I went out
with Emily Barrett, and I had a few too many and ended up crying on her
shoulder. Thank God she never told anybody. She said she understood."
none of that appears in the book: we do see Austin with his arm around
Emily Barrett, but we don't know how badly that date ended. I don't know
where the whole scene about Julia and the woman at the gas station came
from, but it reinforced my sense of Julia: enthusiastic, curious,
inquisitive, even to the point of being slightly pushy. Writing from
Austin's point of view also made him more sympathetic to me, which
helped because the book is told from the point of view of his archrival,
through whose eyes Austin doesn't come off very well. Besides all that,
Austin lives in a fair amount of denial, and writing in his voice
helped me figure out what he actually knows but doesn't admit, what he
admits to himself but not to others, and what he won't even let himself
If traditional character worksheets don't work for you, it's something to try.