Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Researching your characters

Last week when we talked about research, we focused on researching the setting, but of course many things in a book need to be researched. Like how your character's process the world around them.

You might find yourself needing to research a facet of your character's situation. In a manuscript of mine, my main character lost her husband the day before their one year anniversary. I haven't personally dealt with a loss of this magnitude, so if it's possible, I'll talk to people who have. And I'll talk to a friend of mine who's a life coach to gather ideas about how she might direct my main character. Plus there are lots of books about getting over a loss like that. I could check those out. While everything might not apply, or while some of the advice might be bad, it's still advice your character might receive.

Another good way to research how your character might feel about something is to look at your life through their eyes. This exercise came to me one day while I was working on So Over It. I was at the grocery store with my daughter, who was about 8 months old at the time. She was wearing a Kansas City Royals shirt and the cashier said, "Your daddy must be a fan." This is true and therefore didn't bother me ... but that would be a painful comment for one of my characters, a teen mother who has nothing to do with her baby's father, to hear.

Or, for the manuscript about the woman who unexpectedly loses her husband, I'll sometimes look around our house and think, "What if I lost my husband right now? What kind of things would be left undone? What of his belongings would be sitting out, anticipating his return?" (These kinds of morbid thoughts sometimes keep me up at night and frustrate my husband, but they strengthen the emotions I put on the page.)

Sometimes you're just looking to build your knowledge base. The character in my WIP has grown up in a foodie household. Her dad has started several successful restaurants, and her mom is a food critic/columnist. And while my character doesn't talk about braising, julienning, and the benefits of pasture-raised beef in any of the scenes, these are things she's grown up hearing about. So right now, I'm reading food books. A lot of food books. And a lot of food blogs. And we'll be trying lots of new dishes in my house.

Next we'll talk about researching all that "other stuff."

If you have other ideas for researching your character's inner-workings, please share!


  1. Another reason this is so important is because it helps you develop their voice--your foodie character is likely to think in food analogies. My fresh-from-the-Revolution hero made a ton of internal comments relating his current situation to the war. My heroine who has lived all her life at an oceanside inn relates everything to sand, sky, water, and tides. So though they might not be thinking OF this stuff, they're still thinking in terms of it. For me, that's the fun part of researching your character. =) (No helpful hints, I know.)

  2. Good tips. Also I've realized the importance of researching health problems for a character of mine. It's very interesting, to say the least!

  3. I love having a window into my characters' lives... all different sterotypes, backgrounds, and situations that I've never had to go through before. It gives me sympathy and understanding for them, because since I am an actress, I feel their pain. And when I write, I feel like I am that person. So researching characters is a part that I love, probably one of my favorite things about writing.

    I love learning psychology, why people behave the way they do and study various personalities. The way I do this is by putting myself in their shoes. How did that thing in "my" past affect the way I handle situations now? How has it shaped the way I communicate with people? Is that possibly why I have the certain stereotype I have today?

    There's a blog I love visiting: The writer is a Christian therapist and her blog focuses on "character research".

    Great post =) Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Oh, Tessa, I'm so glad you mentioned the Character Therapist! I love that blog. What a great resource!

  5. Something I'm fascinated with is personality types. I read the Myer Brigg's book, whatever it is -- you know, like ISFP or ESTJ. I've grown up with my parents saying, "He's a J," or "They're both T's," when we were driving out the driveway after visiting people.

    I read a book a few months ago, called Personality Plus by Florence Someone. The four personality types -- Sanguine, Choloric, Pleghmetic, Melancholy. It lists our weaknesses and our strenghs... so what I'm doing, is taking a strenth and a weakness.

    And when I'm reading, I can't help but see what personality type's the characters are. Like in the Christy Miller series -- Christy is a pleghmatic, and has a problem with making decisions.

    ... I have to go to school, but just wanted to share that with you!:)


  6. Another fun way to get to know your characters... well... maybe not research. Idk if anyone's mentioned this before, but do interviews with your characters. =)

    Its really fun actually! I got into it on a writing website with other kids, its really quite funny actually lol.

  7. Emii, that's a great one! Thanks for sharing!

    Jazmine, what a great suggestion! What kind of questions do you ask your characters?

  8. I like the idea of looking at life through your character's eyes. I'll probably use that idea.