Have you stepped into your character's shoes lately? Have you literally jumped feet-first into an intimate, probably odiferous detail of your character's life?
No? Well, grab a clothespin and some clean socks and prepare to be amazed at how much you can learn from a pair of shoes.
Ready? Okay, open your character's closet and ease your feet into your character's shoes, the ones they wear every day. Are they too big? too small? Let's say you're a woman, size eight, and your character is a woman, size seven. Too small, but never mind, for this exercise they magically fit.
What kind of shoes are they? Flats or heels? (Flats.) Flip-slops, sneakers, or slides? (Elegant leather slides.) Interesting. Go deeper. Sink your feet into the soles. Are they new and stiff, or comfortably worn? (Stiff, hard, and so new they hurt.) So appearance matters to your character, at the expense of comfort.
Now take a peek around the closet. Are the other shoes similar? You're puzzled: all the other shoes are casual ones, well-worn and comfy. Why has your character suddenly started wearing something different?
Kick the left shoe off now, and raise it to your nose. Yes, go on! Ugh. Sulphur and onions! So she's got smelly feet. What's that white poof of powder? Baking soda. So she's aware of the odor enough to do something about it. Why? Does she work somewhere where the occasional whiff of Foot is not acceptable? Is she dating someone, and eager not to offend? Or is she simply very conscious of herself? Is this self-consciousness why she started wearing these shoes in the first place?
There's nail polish on the edge of the shoe. Glittery silver. An unusual color. What made her choose this?
You're curious now. Step out of the shoes, and wait, invisible, as your character comes into the room and steps into them herself. Now, with the magic power of an author, enter your character. Become her, as she stands in those shoes.
Feel how her heelbones crunch against the hard soles of the slides. She's tired and discouraged. Her heels are itchy from the pumice rub she just gave them in the shower. She scuffs one against the toe of her other foot. A flake of polish chips off her toenail. Angrily, she bends over to yank at the loose flap.
You sense someone made fun of the color. A boyfriend?
“Dear mother-in-law.” An angry grunt as the polish is removed. “I can't keep anything of my own, can I? Not even this.”
Wow! Were you expecting that? I wasn't. I thought she was dating, and eager to impress that Perfect Someone. Instead, she's making an abnormal effort to please her mother-in-law, of all people. Why is the older woman's opinion so important? What does that say about Ms. X's marriage? Something's strange here, and obviously, it's crucial to the character.
See how much you can learn from sticking your feet into someone else's shoes? You can do this with clothes too, but for me, shoes work best: both men and women tend to individualize more with shoes than clothing. This is probably the single best way I know for getting to the sole of your character (pardon the pun: couldn't resist) and finding out what makes them tick. It works fantastically for exploring a new character, but try it on your tried-and-true standbys, as well. If you don't know how it feels to stand in your character's shoes, then you don't know your character as well as you should. Maybe none of what you learn will ever fit into your Epic Work, but the details you learn will change how you see your characters, and will give them depth they never had before.
Just...make sure you have a clothespin. Some of the details you turn up might be a little - smelly?