Researching Characters

originally posted by breathe

Hi Janny,

I've recently had a manuscript appraisal done, and one of the things she said was that I needed to 'research my characters'.
Can I ask whether you did that for Arithon, Lysaer - or indeed any of your characters? And how? In a contemporary story, that *ought* to be fairly easy - if it's a detective story for example, by talking to policemen and criminals (I presume, anyway). How do you research a fantasy character when no one like that exists (to take Arithon for instance, who can scry and has some experience with magic - and can fight with a blade)?


originally posted by Cheryl

I thought they meant the type of work the character does. The work they do mainly. Like I have a mercenary in mind and I think that means research on mercenaries. I have no idea how to go about finding that information. I think they mean their jobs and what they do but I don't know for sure. Maybe she means more background information on the characters lives. Hope Janny can help more.

Breathe -

That statement seems to me to be open to interpretation two ways…that the character doesn't seem "real" as in, they lack synchronicity with their setting…or, they don't feel authentic as individuals.

Setting: look at your world, and not just in terms of storyline. It is the backdrop, the setting, and as such, it will have structure - infrastructure - supporting organization to sustain the societies (or lack of them) - and each area will have a "past.present.future" perspective. To be solid, you can't, say, have a vibrant society in a desert setting without a way to FEED and SHELTER that population. Add to that their history, and their moral high ground, their customs and way of life.

Your character has to "fit" into the puzzle - and have a past.present.future backdrop, a moral high ground, a purpose and a place in the setting. OR a contrast to that setting, if the character's origins were from another place…

Lack of research may mean you didn't place that character, fully fleshed, into a fully fleshed out backdrop and setting.

Expertise, and ignorance, skills and stupidities, beliefs and capabilities, weaknesses and strengths - if these aren't consistent with setting, or handled with a believable sense of connection, you missed your mark.

If your character's actions are not consistent with the internal makeup - and the product or dissonance with the setting - you better have a reason WHY that is believable or the sustained thread of belief - the reader's trust in you, as author, is broken. They fall out of the story.

In short, the gently reared girl thrown into the world who talks like a street tough better have a REASON for being inconsistent with her upbringing.

She can't change form, given her background, just to further the storyline. She has to evolve in step with her experience. And in a way I can grasp, as reader, or she's not "real" enough to engage me.


You didn't research your characters as CHARACTERS.

Again, they evolve.

They are, in the story "moment" the product of:
their past experience
their current passions (what they want to BE or DO)
Their future hopes

Rested on the foundation of:
their beliefs, their attitudes, their expectations (projected off their skills and knowledge) and their perceived sets of limitations and strengths.

Just like you.

They will have disappointments, fears, hopes, dreams, hates and loves and shortfalls and truths.

How do I "research" this? I don't. I start with the premise: who have they BEEN? What sort of person would this "experience" make them> What friction happens when they desire to become more - or to gain the goal that the story projects for them. WHO are they, who do they become, as they pursue their life mission?

This can start ANYWHERE. A person's appearance, speech, and body language say a very great deal. What a woman carries in her purse - this will begin to reflect a character…what sort of PERSON is this, who, perhaps, has pictures of dogs, but no children - whose key ring might have a plastic toy dangle. Whose shoes are expensive, but whose clothing is mismatched…what characteristics describe THIS personality -

I tend to begin with the internal drive, and what has balked the flow of that - and see where it takes me. Arithon: a compassionate musician with intense, introspective awareness, forced to react to forces that inflame those very strengths - how would he REACT? What would the pressure cooker of other peoples' violent expectations make of him? How will he handle himself, protect himself, fight for his integrity?

This gives the character his DIMENSION.

It looks "researched" but really it's not.

It's looking at the "spin" on the marble, before letting it into the pinball chute. It's going to react to obstructions according to its nature.

The "research" involved means: developing a sound, INTUITIVE knowing of its "nature".

I tend to start with the drive, and the binding obstructions, then let the character go into that, and identify HIMSELF. The research happens like a snowball gaining substance in its roll downhill through the storyline.

If your character never gains substance, but is a transparent puppet playing to YOUR events - nothing but a hollow thing enacting a story without emotive input of his own - you have effectively made dead space - a puppet in fact, with no impetus driving it BUT the plot - and that's boring.

If you consider your character is a "tough" - they study how "tough" people act in real life.

If they're a sweetie, look at the variations on that theme. They surround you.

Lastly: the character will reflect himself in mannerisms, acts, thoughts, reactions, self-judgments, attitude, speech, and appearance. Note: you show ONLY those details that will add mood, impetus, force OR CONTRAST to the scene at hand.

Otherwize, if you show more than applies to further the story - you have created window dressing that has no impactful meaning.

Choose what snapshots you show to further the story, the emotion, the suspense, the mood - and you will have spun a full tapestry to sustain the reader's interest and belief.

originally posted by Cheryl

Thanks Janny that helps me a lot as well. I almost dressed my princess in a pink rose gown and had her wearing and emerald necklace. I thought that would not be very attractive lol Thanks so much.

originally posted by breathe

Now there's an answer and a half! Wow - thanks for taking such an enormous amount of time to elucidate - very much appreciated!