For once, the Kate feeelthy mind (tm) isn't involved in this topic... Well, mostly. I can't make guarantees.
Sarah talked yesterday about character and plotting that fails to deliver what it promises. In my not at all humble opinion, part of that failure is the inability of the author to get inside the head of the character. If you don't understand this person, sooner or later you'll write them doing something that's completely wrong for them because it makes perfect sense to you. This is why the best authors have a kind of self-induced multiple personality order (it can't be a disorder, it's more or less under control).
Sure, there are times and and places where it isn't necessary to be that close to your characters. I've yet to encounter one where your fiction isn't improved by that level of understanding. Even extremely formulaic fiction comes alive when the author knows and lives the characters.
Yes, lives. It's a weird state for me, where I'm aware of the real-world considerations around me, but my mind is in a different universe. Oh. Right. That's normal for me. It's when my mind is being a different person in a different universe that gets weirder than Kate-normal. I describe it as channeling that character, because the effect is precisely that. When it's working well, I'm simply the medium by which the character's actions, thoughts and feelings find their way onto the screen.
I know, intellectually, that it's a kind of self-hypnosis where I get myself into the right state and let my subconscious do the heavy lifting. It knows more than I do. My descriptions reflect the way I perceive what's happening.
So, after that lengthy introduction, how does one actually channel a character?
We all have tricks we use to get in the zone. 'Soundtracks' for a book, images that work for us, routines we use to settle our minds so we can focus. Getting inside a character's mind is, for me, a step or two deeper. If I'm working with a historical era - or a setting that closely parallels one - I read as much as I can about it, particularly things like the lives of people in the area and social class I'm looking at, the importance of religion, typical upbringing, and so forth. What I'm looking for here is the environment my character was raised in, because that shapes innate tendencies and governs acceptable actions. Quite simply, no matter who you are or how you were raised, some thoughts are literally unthinkable because the mental scaffolding they need simply doesn't exist. What those thoughts are depends entirely on the culture and language: culture by shaping what is considered 'good' and 'bad' (there are some human universals. There's also a lot of wiggle room), and language by building the scaffolding to frame thought. To take a really simplistic example, a couple of hundred years back, the Inuit probably had no way to think of a hot, arid environment. Neither their cultural experience nor their environment provided any kind of framework. On the other hand, they had any number of ways to think about cold and snow - leading to the old "twenty words for snow" meme. I'd be surprised if they had any cultural reference point for 'introvert' or 'loner', simply because an environment that harsh isn't survivable solo.
So... in a hypothetical historical, even an introverted loner Inuit character is going to be much more people-oriented than a modern introverted loner. He/she will also live within his/her tribe's views of the roles of men and women because moving outside that framework is literally unthinkable. As you learn more about the culture, you'll learn more about the beliefs that affect how your character views the world - how the arrival of a particular kind of wind signals that it's time to move south, the many layers of meaning surrounding every aspect of the tribe's world, the skills that are valued and those that aren't (it doesn't matter if you're the world's greatest mathematical genius when your people don't need to count past 'many' and you've got no access to anything else). Ultimately, the more you know about the world your character lives in, the more you know about how your character has been conditioned to respond to life.
That's when you, as the kind and caring author you are, turn your character's life inside out and upside down to start the story (okay, usually there'll be some kind of introductory stuff first, where your character is living his, her, or in some cases its normal life). At first, your character's going to respond to the new stuff by working with the closest match to 'normal', then there'll be a gradual change and growth. This is the easy part.
The difficult part is doing the same process when you're dealing with the villain. You can always tell someone who can't manage this - their villains are shadowy, offstage menaces that fall flat the instant you see them clearly. It's something of a given that it's a whole lot harder to write convincing evil as opposed to 'decent person who happens to be on the opposite side' or even 'misguided but well-intentioned' - the reason is pretty simple. Most of us can't imagine someone with absolutely no redeeming features at all. If you can't imagine it, you can't get inside and look through its eyes, and you sure as heck can't write it convincingly.
The same process applies, but if you can get inside an evil person's mind, it's... disturbing. One character I've written, after spending time in his point of view I wanted to scrub inside and out. Fortunately I haven't needed to write anyone like that in a while - but I can pretty much guarantee I will have to write evil again. The places my stories go pretty much guarantees it. I'm still not sure whether I was more disturbed because I could write him, or because he was one of the very few who actually is evil, knows it, and chooses to be that way.
More on that topic next week, unless I get derailed (this is quite likely). For this week, lets have some examples of books where the plot can't be separated from the characters and their environment. My pick (yes, I'm cheating and going for several in one) is the Ankh-Morpork Night Watch books by PTerry. It's impossible to separate what happens from Vimes and Carrot, and it's impossible to separate Vimes from Ankh-Morpork. He even manages to take the city with him (in a metaphorical sense) in The Fifth Elephant.
Who and what are your choices?