research and characterization

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A Monday re-do.

I don’t usually re-hash old posts, but this past weekend I was out of town in addition to experiencing a head cold, so needless to say, I didn’t have the time to write a Monday post. I put out a call for ideas on my Facebook page, hoping someone would give me a topic like, oh I don’t know, Why Puppies are Fluffy, or something. Instead I got two very intelligent topics that, due to my cold and lack of time, I was unable to transmute into words in time for today’s post. Therein lies the danger of hanging out with persons more intelligent than oneself.

So, while those two posts are eventually coming to helluo librorum, today out of sheer desperation, I went back to a post that many people enjoyed in the past.

Without further ado for those of you who may have missed it the first time around:

Research and Characterization

We all want believable characters in both what we read and what we write, there is no question about that. It doesn’t matter how wonderful your plot may be, without believable characters your novel will fall flat with the majority of readers. A story is about a person’s emotional journey, and the plot is merely the physical journey the protagonist takes to reach their destination.

So how does a writer reach into their characters for emotional depth?

All writers should be good actors. It is vital that you be able to place yourself in your characters’ minds so you can feel what they feel, see what they see. Ask any good actor how they perfect their roles and the first word out of their mouth will be research.

So let’s apply the actor’s character study to writing. Most writers are familiar with the character sketch of occupation, hair color, eye color, etc. These are all superficial qualities that are necessary, but don’t actually give you the emotional make-up of your character. So in addition to the standard character sketch, I would suggest a great tool to use is one that Andy Shackcloth presented in his post Writing Characters Using the Proust Questionnaire.

Now that you have all the information, what do you do with it?

This is where your research comes in. Let’s say your character is a woman who was sexually abused as a child, but you, the writer, was raised in a stable loving home. How do you find that emotional connection with your character so that you feel what they feel? You will need to get your hands on books and articles on psychology, abused children, memoirs by abused children so you can completely immerse yourself into the mindset of an abused woman.

Imagine what a day in her life would be like, not the superficial stimulants, but what will her thoughts be as she goes through her day. This doesn’t have to be a scene from your novel; create a past for her and watch it in your mind like a movie. What does she feel when someone looks at her? How does she deal with the trauma from her past and how does this affect her interactions with other people? Does her trauma make her overly submissive or overly aggressive? How do her actions reflect these emotions?

Is that difficult? Yes. It can also be painful, but the more you read and learn about your character’s personality type, the more alive that character will become first to you, then to your readers.

It’s not enough to know eye and hair color, you also need to know how that character will speak and think. When I was doing my research for Lucian, I read writings from the Apostolic Fathers, because I wanted a certain speech pattern that reflected the era in which Lucian lived. I read any article I could find about twins and twin relationships, and I read books and articles that analyzed the thinking patterns of people who lived in abusive relationships. When I worked on Catarina, I had to shift mental gears and learn about abusers and their personalities.

Now I have a deeper picture of my characters than simply eye and hair color. Before I actually sit down to write a scene or chapter, I imagine the entire scene as if it was a movie, but I am the actor portraying Lucian (or whichever character’s point of view I happen to be using for that scene). I imagine myself in that character’s body and I try to act and react the same as that person would.

Only after I have a firm picture in my mind of how the character will think and act do I actually begin to write. First I set the stage by writing the setting, then I set my actors into place and write their emotional responses. As I go through the scene, I already have in mind the memories and emotional responses I want my characters to have, so then I’m left with the hard task of making those memories and emotional responses seem real. That simply takes practice.

It is a lengthy process, but it’s all well worth the effort when you finish a scene and someone says that it felt real. That’s how I construct my characters, but I’d be very interested to hear how anyone else constructs their characters. I think everyone employs a different technique, and I am always delighted to learn new ways into my characters’ thoughts.

A few good articles I’ve found while browsing the net are:

Creating Believable Characters: The Art of Breathing Life Into a Story By Skillful Characterization by Debbie Roome

Handling a Cast of Thousands Part I Getting to Know Your Characters by Will Greenway

Seven Common Character Types by Terry W. Ervin II

Web Resources for Developing Characters by Greg Knollenberg


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9 Responses to research and characterization

  1. Kelly Bryson says:

    So…why are puppies fluffy? You’ve really got me thinking here.

    • Teresa says:

      Somehow, Kelly, I knew out of all my readers, you would seize the moment and ask that question. Hence I had prepared an answer: Because God made them that way.

      Thank you, thank you, hold your applause, please . . .

  2. Anna says:

    I’m so glad you re-posted this! I’ve been struggling with understanding one of my characters, and this approach seems like a great way to figure him out.

    • Teresa says:

      Thank you, Anna, for letting me know. I’m so glad it helped you.

      I don’t feel like such a slacker anymore. 😉

  3. tikiman1962 says:

    All very valid points. I will add two commentaries regarding characters.
    I was starting a new novel, completely out of my typical genre and was using a different methodology. it was something more akin to Flaubert. I would write, reread what I wrote, edit that and then attempt to continue. i was failing miserably. I posted a comment on my blog. Jennifer Neri, who has been profoundly inspirational, suggested that I write my way out of it. And I did. And I continued.
    Second comment: the actor’s tools as an analogy for developing character is certainly understandable. But I remember Redd Foxx indicating that he only got into character as Fred Sanford on “Sanford and Sons”…when he put on his shoes. Something as basic as that instilled in him the virtues if the character. I believe it is possible to learn a great deal about your character by appearance. We learn about “people” as we talk with them and listen to them. Our characters are very much the same.

    • Teresa says:

      I know exactly what you mean by writing your way into a character. Sometimes I have to try different POVs to see which one works and which one doesn’t until I’ve got the character’s voice well ingrained in my head.

      Thanks for all your great comments, tikiman1962! 😉

  4. kat magendie says:

    You can tap into universals, too – universal emotions/feelings like: fear, anger, dispair, disappointment, etc…then take them a step further, as far as needed for that particular character! Empathy more than sympathy I guess?

    good post.

    • Teresa says:

      Absolutely, Kat. That’s what helps me tap into what’s going on in my character’s head, the emotions they’re feeling. Thanks for stopping by! 😉

  5. lawrenceez says:

    Good article, Teresa. Thanks for sharing. I like the comparison between writers and actors. I’ve often said this over the years.

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