I'm putting together workshops for my new course and it occurred to me that when writing fiction you need three basic things: the people (your characters); the place (your chosen setting or settings); the plot (the structure and theme.) I've put some of my thoughts together as three blogs and I trust my students will forgive their workshops being slightly second-hand.
Part I: People.
Your characters are the thing that makes your story live. There are only a few plot lines in the world and it is your characters that make people want to read your story. Nobody wants to spend their leisure time with somebody they find boring and it's the same with readers and characters in stories. If your central characters are warm and lively (and personally I like a good dollop of humour too) then the reader will want to spend time with them, even if at that point in the characters' lives they are having a tough time.
Your characters will be different depending on the viewpoint you are using. 1st Person is more immediate and, especially when teamed with Present Tense, it is amazingly effective, but it's not an easy combination to use. 3Rd Person, Past Tense is usually easier to handle (at least most people seem to find it so). 3rd Person can be very close, following the character's internal thoughts, or it can be more distant, recording what they do and say. The risk with the latter is that the character can seem very distant and the reader won't get involved. The only way to find out what suits you is to play with Person and Tense, and even then, what works for one story may not work for another.
One of the trickiest things when creating characters set in the past, is to convince your reader to accept attitudes and behaviour that we cannot relate to or even find objectionable today, and still make the reader care enough about the people we've created to keep on reading.
In a novel you can have a wide cast of characters, but in a short story it is wise to limit the number. If a character is not useful, no matter how much you like them, they have no place in the story. But don't delete them, cut and paste them into a file to use in another story at a later date.
There is an on-going debate amongst writers about whether characters 'come to life' and take over the novel. When put like that it sounds really pretentious, but characters do take on a personality of their own, and if they don't the writer has failed in a fundamental part of their job. I love it when a reader feels they know my characters. When discussing The Terminal Velocity of Cats a reader commented to me, 'It's typical of Mia, to make a joke even when she's really scared.' I thanked the reader and thought with glee, 'My work here is done. I got it right.'
When I was an inexperienced writer, I spent an entire book trying to force a middle-aged woman, who had taken refuge from an abusive marriage, into bed with another (perfectly pleasant) guy. Whatever I did it wouldn't work until I faced the fact that of course she wouldn't do that. It would take years before she'd trust another man in that way. Apologies to Gina (my character in the book), it won't happen again.
When writing, respect your characters and don't be afraid to let them lead you, at least some of the time. Consider it as getting to know a friend a bit better every day. It doesn't mean you're losing control of your book, just sharing it. After all, your characters have a stake in what happens as well.