What I've learned while doing this is that I think I'm becoming the character, and I am, but to a large degree they are also becoming me. The characters that take center stage in my novels all have parts of me and they evolve as I evolve. It's like a beautiful little dance. My life experiences shape who I am and they shape who they are. I'm learning now to observe people as they live their lives. Oftentimes seemingly minor situations are in fact huge sources of inspiration for a writer. I also write in my journal or on my computer, usually if I'm trying to let go of a particular emotion. Those words can later be used for inspiration as well.
And that, right there, is the beauty of experiencing life. Every new experience can be filed away into your store of writing prompts, plot lines, or character quirks that make a character unique. People, places, emotions, words, as well as sight, sound, smell, and touch. All of these make a character and all of these are how you experience life. In particular, when I have an experience that moves me to tears or hurts so much I think I can't handle it, I'll often give my characters experiences that will bring out the same emotions, because it gives the character depth, it shows what they care about, and it enables the reader to become emotionally connected to them. Through those experiences you can portray beauty, loss, heartache, joy, love, compassion, etc. These are the experiences that take writing from stringing words along a paper to an art form. Once the reader feels that connection, I believe at that point art has happened. That doesn't necessarily mean I've hit that point with my writing. I certainly hope I have. And if not, I will continue to write and to use my experiences to move it forward.