Novels are a bit different. As I've said, I've never penned a novel all the way through, but I have ideas, both my own and from what I've read, about characterization. First off, I truly believe it matters what kind of novel you plan to write as to how much characterization you should do. Personally, the stories I like to read and write are plot-driven. Characters are important, but they depend on the plot, not the other way around. I'm not going to go through a whole character checklist to find out which hospital the main character was born in or at what age he first sat on the toilet and pooped without diapers. It's not esential. I don't need to know that. To write, I just need to know the essentials of my characters to get started. All the little things that pop up to give a depth to the character are essential, but they can come in the process of writing the durn thing.
I've created my own little list of what I want to know about my character before I start. This list has six things for me to flesh out. I write a paragraph on each (more if it just screams out for me to do so) and go from there. Maybe this can help you, too.
- Write a paragraph on the character's past.
- Write a paragraph on the character's present (before the actual start of the story).
- Write a paragraph on the character's role in the story.
- Write a paragraph on the character's motives and goals.
- Write a paragraph on the character's main conflict.
- Write a paragraph on how the character changes (his or her epiphany).
I have other things I can add if I have them in mind right away, such as the character's most prominent personality trait, his or her habits, and other things along those lines. If, however, they don't jump out at me, I'll wait. Something great may come to me while I'm getting to know the character while writing. Or when something pops up in the plot that would make a quirky personality trait or hobby or talent relevant, I can think of something then. Or in the revision process. (Also notice that most of the list depends on having a firm grasp on the plot before the characterization process can start.)
My point is this: you don't have to know everything about your character before you start. If you think you do, fine, do it. But if you need permission to start writing your story before you know what presents your character got for his third birthday, consider this my high-five to you to get started.
One other point I want to make before I sign off for today: Notice I didn't add physical description to my characterization. I don't believe a character (the main characters, at least) should have much physical description added to them. Let the reader decide what the main character looks. Unless a certain physical trait is important to the story, don't bother. Of course, if the character's long legs get him out of trouble somewhere in the middle of the story (or especially if it's in the climax), make sure you casually mention that somewhere in the beginning. You don't want to cheat the reader this way.
Until next time, have fun reading and/or writing!