I haven't written a short story in about two years, but when I was writing them, I usually only thought about one personality trait of my protagonists--whichever aspect of human behavior I wanted to explore--and more or less ignored everything about these characters. That worked well enough in short stories, where you're almost always seeing a single episode in someone's life, focusing in on a brief moment. It's odd but true that you can have memorable characters in short fiction that are not well-rounded.
This doesn't work in long-form fiction like a novel, which I discovered to my great alarm when I wrote my first novel, lo these many years ago. There was the One Thing I really knew about my protagonist, but that certainly wasn't enough characterization to make this guy interesting for 300 pages. Like a lot of novice novelists, I filled in the rest of his personality with myself. He was a skewed version of me, which also wasn't that interesting because despite my immense ego, I'm pretty dull when you get down to it.
Yesterday at work we had a staff meeting with about 45 people attending. At the beginning of the meeting we all played one of those "getting to know you" games as an ice-breaker of sorts. Each of us was given a list of 60 or so behaviors, and we were to pick five of them that applied to us. They were things like "likes thunderstorms" or "plays guitar" or "kisses on the first date" or "closes eyes when watching horror movies" and the like. The lists were then read aloud, and we all guessed whose lists were whose. Oh, the fun we had.
Where's all this leading? I am wondering today about how we find our characters, especially our main characters. It's widely held that first novelists especially have problems writing compelling three-dimensional characters, or groups of characters who are all unique, different from one another and not cardboard cutout "stock" characters.
Certainly every word we write comes from us, out of our heads, informed by our personal histories and reading histories, and every character we write exists first of all in our own heads. That's not to say that all of our characters are necessarily aspects of us, or veiled versions of us, or idealized versions of us (though too often they are in some people's writing); it means that our characters are our creations and will be limited to what our imaginations can hold.
I know that people sometimes use "character questionnaires" that have a long list of attributes (physical, mental, emotional, biographical, etc.) which, if filled in, will supposedly give you a complete picture of your characters. I don't use these and I find even the thought of them annoying somehow. When my coworkers and I were going through our "ice breaker" exercise yesterday, it became apparent that even with fifty or sixty choices and I don't know how many possible combinations of answers, after a while all the descriptions seemed the same.
Nowadays I'm trying to figure out my characters through the story itself. I tend to see all of the novel (characters, plot, theme, setting, mood) as a single interconnected machine, so my characters are created to make the plot believable and the themes active. I don't actually tend to sit down and spend a lot of time asking "who are these people" so much as I work out who they are by working out what the story is and what the story needs in the way of actors.
Now to you: Do you put a lot of yourself into your characters? Why or why not? Do you use fill-in lists to figure out who your people are going to be? Why or why not? How do you figure out who your characters are, and how do you tie that into figuring out what your story is?
P.S. Happy Bloomsday!