Perhaps you've never had this happen to you. You've never had a character make a decision with pretty much zero input from you. That's eminently possible, as it's something that doesn't just start to happen overnight. You can't prompt it to happen; all you know is that one minute you're in control, and then the next minute you're in a totally different mindset. You wind up ceding control.
If you've never been in this position, it probably sounds less like good character development and more like a latent form of disassociative disorder.
Of course, when you're roleplaying, you're already handing off control to another personality. If you're quiet and reserved but playing someone more boisterous; you're at least trying to act like someone very different from you. And as you continue acting in that way, you're eventually going to find yourself making decisions based on instincts that aren't your own. You're going to strike up conversations that your calm and reasonable mind wouldn't make because you don't strike up conversations on a regular basis. But your character does, so you have to start making a different set of choices.
And eventually, you're going to find yourself making a decision that you can't explain beyond the fact that it feels right. Your boisterous and outgoing character will suddenly jump in to defend someone from danger, and it's not an aspect of that character's prior personality, but it feels completely right. You're going to have to figure out after the fact why, exactly, that happened.
Ironically, while that means you're understanding the character better, it also means that the character is starting to have more pull. The character is making decisions without player input -- or, if you'd prefer, the player knows the character well enough that character instincts become player instincts.
This is where you really start to get into the meat of roleplaying, in my opinion. When you're asking yourself "what would Regina do?" every time, Regina is always going to feel a bit stiff. But when you can stride into a scene with Regina and know what she'd do and only ask after the fact why she did it, the line starts to blur a little bit more. That's when you can feel some genuine surprise about a character's actions because those actions aren't constrained by your own ideas.
OK, they are. But it sure doesn't feel like it at the time.
As much as I've said over the years on this column that roleplaying isn't the same as telling a story, this is a place where being familiar with telling a story becomes very useful. If you want to develop an understanding of a character, the best way to do so is understand why that character does certain things, and to do that, you need to understand how to analyze actions after the fact. Making a critical analysis of character traits helps here.
But the other big way to help your characters develop different voices is to just give them the space for it. Walk into scenes without a plan and see where dialogue and situations take you. If you know the overall thrust of a scene, you're more likely to steer things in the "correct" direction, but if you're just moving with the flow, you're giving your character more opportunities to make a choice, including a choice that might surprise you at the time.
To be fair, I realize it also leads to messes. Letting the character take over instead of the player means that you aren't thinking about what's convenient or straightforward. It means that your character will develop inconvenient crushes, annoying fixations, and strange rivalries that you don't always fully understand. It turns the character into an increasingly three-dimensional entity, one that requires you to sometimes make decisions that aren't as good for the game but make said character happy. In fact, the more your character is allowed to drive, the more things turn into a mess of conflicting desires and personal agendas.
Those of you who dislike this style of roleplaying might do well to avoid it. Those of us who prefer this sort of character-centric approach, on the other hand, will note this is precisely what we were hoping for anyway.
I don't think there's a very simple conclusion to this particular set of musings, so I'm just going to leave off with the usual outro that feedback can be left in the comments below or mailed to email@example.com. Next week, prompted by some of my own hobbies, I want to talk about picking up a character you haven't played in a while.
Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did.