Sometimes I feel a bit like Dr. Frankenstein when I first start to put together a new character. Some little something about Person X will capture my attention and make it's way into a character. Some attribute or quality that's either endearing or irksome. A funny story from Person Y's bad day at work, and maybe there's a Person Z with a quirky habit. The character won't be based on any of these various people, but I think taking little pieces from real life can help keep characters grounded and make them more believable.
When it comes to a character's appearance, I have a strict policy of never basing a character on a person I know in real life. To be honest, it gets confusing to me if I start to put a "real life" face on a character. What happens if that character starts acting like the real person, instead of remaining a fictional character? If a character takes on too many attributes and qualities of someone who might by chance read the story, that get could awkward fast. To avoid this, in addition to the Frankenstein method I have a folder saved on my laptop labeled "central casting." That's where I save various pictures I come across online of people that could be used as potential "models" for character appearance. Here's some examples: for a character that's something of a bohemian type, unconventional and even a bit otherworldly, just the right picture of Johnny Depp might be perfect. A picture of Christian Bale would be good for a dark, intense, and brooding character. I've got several pictures of Henry Cavill saved if I ever decide I want to write werewolf smut, er, paranormal romance. That central casting folder comes in handy, plus it's fun.
This covers only how I start out a new character. Friends who play role playing games have suggested I use character sheets that have you fill out all sorts of details and minutiae to get to know them better. I've tried it but it's never worked for me. I don't really get to know a character fully until I get deep into the writing. They will reveal themselves to me, and frequently surprise me. They'll whisper secrets to me, secrets that sometimes don't even make it onto the page. It's a strange, organic process that I don't fully understand. Getting to know a new character can be frustrating when it seems like I can't figure out how to coax them into talking to me. But then once they do, it can really kick a story into overdrive and send it into new and exciting places. More than once I've liked a character so much that I wished I did know someone like them in real life.*
Do you have a particular method of creating characters? Do they arrive in your head fully formed, or do you have to get to know them over the course of writing the story?
*This remark is not at all in reference to any possible Henry Cavill werewolf smut, I swear.