Thursday, May 25

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, May 25, 2017 No comments
Research often gets a bad rap in fiction-writing circles. Everyone seems to know at least one aspiring author who got lost on the Planet Library, having followed one interesting tidbit after another deep into the stacks, never to return. Never to actually turn the acquired knowledge into a story.

No one wants to become that guy.

One the other extreme, some consider doing any research a waste of time, since fiction is supposed to be "all make believe." But make believe that doesn't have some grounding in researched reality will likely be drawn from your limited experience, or worse, from cliches.

Somewhere between these extremes of no research and nothing but research is the sweet spot of doing some research. As Robert McKee says in Story, “No matter how talented, the ignorant cannot write. Talent must be stimulated by facts and ideas. Do research. Feed your talent. Research not only wins the war on cliché, it’s the key to victory over fear and its cousin, depression.”

Today, I'd like to touch on a few areas of research that will help you build fantastic, memorable characters. When you take the time to know your characters' worlds deeply, you'll be able to develop more dynamic plots and relationships, and you'll be more equipped to develop each character's unique voice in dialogue.

Knowledge base

In order to write realistic characters and create believable plots, you need to know what your characters know—or at least a big enough slice to accurately represent their daily activities and thought patterns.

How educated are your characters? What special areas of knowledge or training do they have?
Read up as much as possible on topics that would interest your character. Educate yourself about the routines and general lifestyle of their particular vocation, whether an elementary school student or astrophysicist, a milkmaid or Baronet. Use written resources to build your general knowledge, develop questions to ask experts, and create lists of things you’d like to observe.

Cultural/historical influences 

If you’re writing a protagonist who isn’t an autobiographical stand-in for yourself, chances are this person has a different history and may be shaped by different cultural influences. She might be from another generation, another socioeconomic class, another geographical region, another subculture.

Familiarize yourself with important historic events that happened during their lifetime, as well as the lifetime of key family members (parents, siblings, grandparents). You might be surprised especially when writing younger characters: events that shaped your life may have no relevance to them at all. Characters from previous generations might have had contact with technology you’ve never heard of, and be deeply shaped by problems long forgotten in our day (are you noticing a pattern here?).

People from other cultures have different sets of stars and heroes. They value different virtues, and overlook (or punish) different vices. They have different ways of interpreting history and their own circumstances than you might looking in from the outside. So dig in. Get to know your character’s cultural world.

Your goal should be to understand your character’s surrounding influences and the choices s/he is likely to make based on those influences.

Family dynamics

No matter what genre you write, it’s helpful to do some reading in the social sciences. Because everyone is typically born or adopted into a family, research on family dynamics can be useful.

Some helpful sub-categories to explore:
Marriage dynamics
Birth order and personality
Sibling dynamics
Intergenerational influence and conflict
Rights and responsibilities of various family roles in history

If you write about a futuristic setting, these works may become jumping-off points for world building. Consider a world in which no middle children exist, or where marital bonds are for a fixed period, say ten years. How would that affect individual families and culture at large? Speculative fiction writers might also find it helpful to read about family dynamics in ages past, such as texts from ancient Rome about family life.


Associations are “tip of the mind” thoughts that, like icebergs, show only a portion of the whole story. Most of the mass is hidden under the surface, whether it’s a mass of history or emotion. Associations can be a shorthand way of showing what kind of past experiences the character has gone through, what he values, and what forms of culture shape him. Associations show up in the way characters describe things, and especially how they make comparisons, such as similes and metaphors. Here are two examples from my novel Never Gone:

Images burst in my mind like sudden sun through stained glass.

This person is someone who frequents:
a. sport arenas
b. churches
c. suburban malls

“Crikey,” Uncle says. “We’re in Dante’s eighth circle of hell.”

This person is...
a. a man of the soil who works with his hands
b. an Irish dancer who dreams of becoming the next Michael Flatley
c. an educated bloke who has studied Classical literature

The simile and metaphor in each of these examples pours a great deal of back story into the characters without my having to tell you “Dani grew up attending church every Sunday without fail,” or “Uncle Philip took a First in Classics before attending law school.” As a reader, I’d be bored being told these rather dull facts. It’s far more interesting to see how life experiences shape the characters’ minds.

In the second example, I used a particular kind of association, a reference to other literature (or film or music) called an allusion. Allusions can be used strategically to bring themes of the other work to bear on yours. My example alludes to Dante’s Inferno. In it, the eighth circle of hell (ditch nine) is for “sowers of discord”—people who cause conflict and dissension between others—and their fate is to be cut to pieces. This is thematically important to the story, and the uncle’s role especially.

Before you begin researching associations, brainstorm to determine a few key environmental pieces for each character, whether they are career, family of origin, hobby, or other influence. Having more than one will make for an interesting, multi-layered personality, rather than a repetitive, one-note character. These elements should be important for how the character interacts with others and move the plot along, otherwise they will become tangents that muddy the story rather than enhance it.

Research the environmental factor and record key terms, images, events, allusions, etc. that can be worked into your character’s conversations and thought life.

Which of these areas of research intrigues you most? What things do you need to research to make your current project's characters more vibrant and realistic?


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