In the middle of an ordinary life, there comes a time when one faces a decision that changes the course of that life forever. That window of a moment only lasts a few days or less. The choice that person makes dictates how his/her future will play out until they encounter another moment when another decision must be made. Ultimately, you can get to know someone (real or make-believe) in a very short time span because of this.
When establishing my characters for my story, I like to play around with their cognitive behavior and personality traits. What emotions preoccupy them and how do these feelings influence their choices? When I think about how they think, I can usually grasp an understanding of their biographical history and how their environment influences their emotions. This in turn, leads to their decision making process. After all, the choices that a person makes are what define their characters.
Let's play around with this theory a bit: I've been writing, re-writing, revisiting my first novel Exit Renner for years. The story centers around a character in her mid-twenties suffering from an entry-level career burnout and the mundane routine of "the system." Her youthful idealism from college is dying, and she feels trapped in the glass ceiling of the corporate world. She begins to consciously transport herself in different time warped planes and gets inside different people's spirits. She becomes a tea plantation owner at the turn of the century, a Buddhist monk, and a lottery winner of her future self. Each character she encounters plays a significant role in her own desires: power, spiritual wisdom, sexuality, and money. Although her bizarre space-time experiences allow her to escape from the mundane, she soon realizes that all roads and tranverse planes in the universe lead to only ONE PLACE (this answer is revealed only to the readers who will actually ever read my novel - seriously, READ something, people).
So we'll call this character the Transverse Planes Traveler. She will have an actual name, but I haven't decided that yet. Instead of accepting the reality of life (working for at least forty years until retirement with almost very little satisfaction, raising a family during uncertain times, adapting to the routines that make one bitter and resentful, etc), she challenges it through her consciousness and subconsciousness. She "escapes" the world not so much with a decision-making moment in her ordinary life, but through a cognitive level of subconsciousness and consciousness blended together that heightens her awareness of parallel universes and tranverse planes. She begins to travel in and out of other beings, influencing them with their choices, and therefore changing the course of other characters' histories. So now I have a character who transitions into other characters. They will be the ones who will reveal the conflicts in the plot. They are the ones who will determine if they will use their feelings or logical reasoning to make their decisions. The choices determine their actions. Their actions will determine the course of the novel, so even though I have always struggled with the plot (which teachers always call the "meat" of the story), I don't sweat it as a writer. I always begin with the characters. They are the ones who will determine the plot. Not me (the writer).
I'll introduce you to another character favorite. Unlike the Transverse Planes Traveler who has been with me for over a decade, I just met this one recently. He is The Wanderer. He doesn't belong in my Exit Renner novel, but he belongs somewhere in this space-time traveling thing somehow. I don't know exactly how he belongs there yet, but that's okay. I'm still getting to know him. He has conventional good looks, but this isn't why I (as the writer) like him. Okay, maybe it's part of it, but not entirely. I am tempted to go into details in describing his looks, but I'm a little worried it will end up sounding like 50 Shades, which is not! No. Uh-uh. No.
But here's a sketch of what he looks like (let's giggle like schoolgirls for a bit): Naturally tanned all year round. Broad shoulders. Gorgeous abs with beautiful tattoos. His body tells a story in itself. He wears a crucifix around his neck that he keeps hidden around his white shirt. On the left part of his chest, a tattoo of Christ hanging on the cross surrounded by weeping women, one of them most likely is the Holy Mother of God. On the other side of his chest, a monstrous fire dragon attacking the snakes and on the lower left side of his abs, gentle angel doves flying gracefully around a rose over a defeated dragon.
Now back to our focus - the choices that characters make which dictate the plot. The Wanderer is a world traveler. He cannot settle down. His amazingly good looks have not provided him with good luck. He's always melancholic. Even his guitar strumming is depressing. To the casual observer, he is a bachelor not wanting to settle down. He can pack up his bags at any given time and set out to any adventure, whether it's sailing along the Mediterranean coast or volunteering in a poverty stricken school in Manila, he does not stay in one place nor does he establish any meaningful relationships for a long period of time. To the careful observer, though (in this case, the careful observer is the narrator in the story - the writer) he spends most of his days traveling in search for an aswer to a question he himself cannot begin to know how to ask. All he knows is the gravitational pull he feels to follow a path that leads him all over the world in search for an answer. He doesn't know the question, but he knows he's looking for the answer to it. He feels a strong sense of destiny.
One of these two characters will die. I don't know who and how. They will die, though. But before they do, readers will know that they have choices they will need to make within a very short timespan given a particular moment. Maybe the choices won't be obvious because of all the circumstances or events surrounding them. They seem to lack control, but that's not true at all. Their choices will dictate the events. They just have to find them and...CHOOSE!
The Tranverse Planes Traveler's path leads to already knowing the answer to her own question. The Wanderer doesn't even know he is asking a question. All he knows is what he feels, so he is "lost" in a world of infinite possibilities. This is what makes him depressed. Although he feels a strong sense of destiny, he has no sense of direction and therefore feels he cannot arrive at his destination. This is all determined through his cognitive process. I'm thinking about how he thinks. His thoughts will lead me to write what happens to him, and you better believe I'll be observing the people around me.
My next goal is to think of names for them. I've changed Transverse Planes Traveler's names several times already, and have not fully been satisfied with them. She's a girl who has always played by the rules. But a taste of the corporate world has left her resenting the rules, so I want her name to have a certain spunkiness but also let it be somewhat conventional. The Wanderer is new, and I'm okay with calling him that until I get to know him better.