Nothing is more important to a novel than good characters. The theme may be visionary, the descriptions exquisite and the plot breath-taking, but without good characters it “ain’t good fiction.” Period.
Nor can we, writers, really create characters – not good ones. We can create stick figures that stiffly toddle across the pages of our book, or we can cut-and-paste from other works, or even use pre-fab microsoft-like creations that everyone instantly recognizes: the beautiful seductress, the clever detective, the sensitive misunderstood child, the evil step-mother etc. etc.
Good characters are as complex as human beings, and only God can create humans. Writers are not God. We are at best disciples and prophets, interpreting God’s word, describing his creations – inadequately. But the better we are at understanding humans, the better we will be at describing them. And the better we describe them as unique individuals, the better will be our novel.
And just as humans grow-up, make mistakes, learn from their mistakes (or fail to do so), good characters are neither perfect nor stagnant. Good characters have flaws, and good characters change in the course of a novel. Only ancillary characters should be essentially the same at the end of a novel as they were at the beginning. While this is most pronounced in novels spanning a longer period of time (like my biographical novels), it should be true even of a novel covering only a few months – because those few months must represent a significant event for the central characters or the novel has no credible plot.
My Battle of Britain novel, for example, only covers the months of May to September 1940, but for the characters it a pivotal period. Another novel could describe no more than the day September 11, 2001 – but it would only be a good novel about that day, if the key characters are different in a significant way at the end of it.
And good characters – really good characters – will never leave you, the writer, in complete control of the plot. They will take the bit in their teeth now and again, and run away with you. When your characters do that, when they start shaping the novel for you, you know you have a good cast of characters. From then on, your job becomes one of directing and coaching rather than dictating. It is always a wonderful moment!