One of my favorite methods of creating characters is the use of voice--how a particular character speaks or thinks. Before I begin writing, I try to hear the character in my head. If I'm lucky, I'll come up with a memorable sentence right away (even if ultimately that doesn't appear in the beginning of the book). Then I ask myself, what makes this voice different from the other voices in the book? That helps me understand the character more deeply, with his or her motivations. Then I ask why. Why does this character speak/think like this? What might have happened in his or her life that has caused this voice? And that gives me backstory.
For instance, my novel Sister of My Heart has two narrators, Sudha and Anju, who are cousins and best friends. It was important for me to distinguish them clearly, as much of the irony in the novel rises from how differently each young woman interprets and reacts to the events that occur in their joint-family household. These are the opening sentences I came up with:
Sudha: "They say in the old tales that the first night after a child is born, the Bidhata Purush comes down to earth himself to decide what its fortune is to be. . . . That is why they leave sweetmeats by the cradle. Silver-leafed sandesh, dark pantuas floating in golden syrup, jilipis orange as the heart of a fire, glazed with honey-sugar. If the child is especially lucky, in the morning it will all be gone."
Anju's is: "Some days in my life, I hate everyone." (She follows this with a catalogue of who she hates and why--basically everyone except Sudha, whom she considers sister of her heart).
These first sentences set me on the course of portraying Sudha as slightly dreamy and a believer in tradition and destiny, and Anju as a rebellious and headstrong iconoclast.
Here are a couple of other writers who are consummate creators of voice, each in a different way.
Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City: "You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head."
Tagore, Home and the World: "Mother, today there comes back to my mind the vermillion mark at the parting of your hair, the sari which you used to wear with its wide red border, and your wonderful eyes, full of depth and peace."
You might also want to look up Tim O'Brien, "The Things They Carried," Denis Johnson, Jesus' Son, Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Streeet, Bharati Mukherjee, Desperate Daughters, and just about anything by George Saunders.
Voice can be addictive. And it can have its downfalls. More about that in another post!