My third novel, a mystery thriller called The Grave Concerns of Jennifer Lloyd, was the most unusual writing experience I have ever had, and that's after decades of writing one thing or another - and of making a living out of writing. Why?
Firstly, it is first-person, from a woman's pont-of-view (POV). Yes, I have always been comfortable with scenes having female POV - although male is first choice, where this works best. But I have never before had the notion of using a female narrator for an entire book. (Thankfully, a female reviewer of 'Grave Concerns' said I created a 'charming young woman'. So that was a relief. Although, I should say, she is far from charming when push comes to shove!)
But even that wasn't the reason this was my most unusual writing experience. The reason is that Jen - yes the titular Jennifer Lloyd - came into my mind fully-formed right from the outset of the story idea. More than that, she virtually dictated the direct manner she wanted to be presented on the page. She comes from a broken background and is short of friends, and she wanted the reader to be her friend: a confidant to whom she can relate, speak, joke.
I could have tamed her, stood back and controlled her, pushed her around via third-person, but it is a real gift when a character comes to the fore like this, so I went with it. It proved to be a delightful experience, and it led to a great depth of character.
Normally a novelist gets to know their characters gradually, as a novel progresses, so this really was unusual. My first (failed) attempts at writing novels when I was a teenager were beset by cardboard characters. I was plagued by not knowing how to make them seem real. In those days it seemed as if Sherlock Holmes' style observations - characteristations of a man with a limp, poor eyesight, and worse - were the things which distinguished character, but how wrong I was. I now know that it is their psyche which characterises them: how they think, what the want, what has moulded them...
I now like to allow my readers to peep into their heads to understand what makes them tick - or, at least, figure it out from their behaviour and dialogue. I believe each novel has taught me a little more about achieving this, and 'Grave Concerns', and the deep knowledge I had of its protagonist, feels like an achievement because of the intimiate involvement I had with its lead character.
When you boil it all down, you could say its all due to experience. But I think it's something more than that. It is a case of understanding how to understand (your characters)!