Research, Part One - Characters

A lot of new writers believe that as long as they are writing fiction, they really don’t need to do any research. And while, on first blush, that may seem to be the case, experienced writers know that almost any story they write will require research. The main reason? To make their writing resonate with readers by being authentic.

Actors are frequently asked how they prepare for a role, and they often talk about how they rode around with police officers or politicians; talked to mountain climber, fashion models, teachers, ranch hands organic gardeners, or attorneys; or have listened to tapes or watched videos of the actual person the role is about. They may work with a voice coach or learn about how their character would conduct himself or herself in a particular historic period. That’s research, and it makes their portrayal of the character much richer.

As writers, it is essential we give that much attention to the details of our stories. If you have a 16-year-old white drug dealer, do you have any idea how he will speak? What terms he will use for the drugs? How he will present himself to make a sale? What terms, in general, will a boy of his age will use when talking? If you don’t know, you need to find out.

If your character goes back into her childhood during the 1950s, 1970s, or whenever, you need to ask the same kind of questions. How did girls talk back then? What slang was popular? If your character is age 85 in the present time, how does she use language? She’s not going to talk the same as your 16 year old. Each of your characters needs his or her own distinct way of speaking – and that includes knowing the following:

  • Education

  • Place they are from (southern U.S. or northern Italy or rural Japan)

  • Class

  • Race

  • Culture

A character from India will speak differently than one from Appalachia. Your protagonist from a blue-collar family will say things differently than someone who grew up in the lap of luxury. (Even if he has made it into the upper echelons of society, he will slip sometimes and betray his roots). Someone who is well educated will use different terms and expressions than someone who never made it past sixth grade.

Don’t make it up. Those of us who live in the South in the U.S. can’t stand to hear actors who speak with a southern accent, based on stereotypes of southerners being dumb and gullible. Actors who have done their research come across as credible and we pay attention, instead of getting angry that we are portrayed as “hicks.” Readers who share some of your character’s qualities, or who know other people who do, will notice immediately if you haven’t done your research. And if they are paying attention to what is wrong with your character’s portrayal, they aren’t connected to your story and you’ve lost them.

Next week, we’ll look at other research necessary for fiction writing. Until then, for advice, tips, and inspiration on writing, please visit MY BLOG