Characters are contrary little bastards. They’re like imaginary friends*, except they never do what you want them to. You want to play catch? They want to stay inside and kill things on Halo. You want to read? They want to do the mental equivalent of that thing your little brother used to do, when he’d sit beside you and poke you for hours. Hell, sometimes you can’t even convince them to leave a fucking room. So, more like imaginary enemies than friends.
But, between you, you’ve got a story to tell. So how do you get them in line?
You need to get inside their head.** Sometimes they’re not listening because you don’t really understand them yet. Think of those characters as surly, emo teenagers: they want desperately to be understood, but will respond with sullen defiance should you attempt speaking to them or any other sort of normal human interaction. So you’ve got to try other methods. My current favourite has the benefit of working on characters as well as teenagers: listen to their music.
I create playlists. I pop open iTunes and start making a list for the character. It’s not always music that they would listen to, though that can be a part of it. Mostly, it’s songs that feel like them. Songs that capture a feeling in a scene, or an overall character note. That guy who always has one foot out the door. That girl who’s turned grief into a weapon. That guy who’ll try to put a good face on everything, no matter what.
Music is emotion, so use it connect to those character’s emotions.
There are complications, of course. Major characters change over the course of a story, so the music that captures their essence will change, too. Sometimes I create a folder and then different playlists. The ‘Michael’ folder might have lists marked ‘Prisoner’, ‘Ruins’, and ‘Clean’, depending on the stage of the story they stand for. I can click on the individual lists to capture a time, or the entire folder to get an idea of his character’s progression. Minor characters will probably only get one, but if they’re strong characters, one is enough. They’ll permeate the list once you make it. They’ll bleed through the notes.
Then all you have to do is get yourself a set of headphones and listen.
*My imaginary friend when I was a child was a six-inch-high vampire that lived in a shoebox. I used to bring the shoebox to school and leave it in my locker while I was in class. Never really thought of why. Only now do I realize that I must have been bringing him to school to feed.
**Which is inside your head. God help you if one of your characters is a writer. Sounds like the plot to Inception II: Mindfuck Boogaloo.