I flat-out love research, as I find it inevitably sparks new ideas for a story or novel. If you’re writing in the ‘Here & Now,’ it’s not quite as necessary, but unless you do exactly what every last one of your characters do, and you have the same background, education, and interests as all of your characters, you’re still going to need to go out and seek information. In my classes, I give my students this scenario: Your character is a upper-class woman living in New York in 1855. Your story starts with her waking up in the morning. How happens next? What’s she wearing? And from there, I give them a (brief) outline of how such a woman from that era would generally be dressing — which usually leaves them a little stunned.
As writers of speculative fiction, we generally have a lot of research to do. In IMMORTAL MUSE, I bounce between contemporary NYC to late 1300 Paris, to Rome in the 1630s, to Venice in the 1700s, to Paris in the French Revolution, to early 19th Century London, to Vienna in the 1890s, to France during WWII… That’s a little extreme, but a writer’s job is to produce characters (and a setting) within our timeframe that is convincing to the reader.
There are several ways you can go about researching. You can (obviously) consult nonfiction books; you can talk to an expert in the field (often a great way to go about it, and most experts are more than willing to share their knowledge); you can talk to a person who actually does the job your character does (and again, most people are flattered that you want to use them to help write a book); you can, sometimes, actually experience what your character has experienced — which is often the best way.
But the bottom line is that you must know what your characters know. You must understand the routines they follow and the “lingo” of their profession (they work at Starbucks? They have to know the language of coffee). You have to understand their worldview. Sometimes, in our genre, you can use a similar situation: for instance, a “wizard” might be akin to a scientist, or a chemist if they mix potions, or an herbalist if they use ‘natural’ solutions. But you have to have all this down solid, or your characters will become caricatures, and that’s not good.
As writers, we also have to become actors. We have to constantly ask ourselves this question: “If I were this person, in this situation, with this personality and with this background, what would I do?” And that’s all about empathy — we have to be able to sink into our characters’ heads, as dangerous as that can be.
For a writer, “bad acting” results in cardboard characters, in boring lecturers of characters, in “Darwin-in-Action” characters who do stupid things that no halfway intelligent person would do.
We implicitly ask this of our readers: “Don’t mistake the beliefs and feelings of my characters for the beliefs and feelings of me-the-author, because my characters will say or do things that I personally find abhorrent or wrong. My characters are not me.”
In the same way, as a writer, we shouldn’t mistake our own beliefs and feelings for the beliefs and feelings of our characters. They will say and do things you wouldn’t. And that’s a good thing.
It’s not good for you (or your characters) to write in a vacuum. We have to remember that the writer isn’t the final judge of his or her writing — the reader is. So it behooves us to enlist readers to give us feedback. That could be via a workshop environment if you’re lucky enough to have found a good one where you get honest, critical responses to your work — while it feels good to have people pat you on the back and tell you how wonderful your draft is, that really doesn’t help you become a better writer. You want critique, not praise. Yes, you do want to know where things are working, but it’s more important to know where things aren’t.
In a workshop environment, I try to listen to repetition of the same criticism. If most of the group members are telling you the same thing, it behooves you to think that they’re right, and this is a problem you need to address. If one person says something, but the others don’t chime in to agree, well, you can make your own decision as to whether this is something you need to worry about or not.
If you don’t have a workshop group (and I don’t), what a writer can do is enlist a group of beta readers to give you feedback — which is my current process. You want to find readers whose taste in fiction is similar to yours, who are excellent, sophisticated readers who can tell you where you need to concentrate your revision efforts. I’d be cautious about using friends; sometimes friends are understandably reluctant to hurt your feelings, and will either only talk about the parts they liked, or will simply lie and tell you it’s the best book they ever read and my, what a talented person you are.
That’s a useless response to a draft. You want readers (who can be friends if they’re not afraid of hurting your feelings) who will be bluntly honest about their response to your draft. Listen to them. Use their feedback and revise accordingly.
In the end, though, whether you use a workshop or beta readers, you’re still the writer. In the final polished draft, the decisions are always yours to make.
In reality, you might use all of these strategies to strengthen your characterization, or even devise new ones of your own. With a novel, especially, it’s difficult to point out “Here’s an example of good characterization” because the author is always doing characterization. As in a Renaissance painting, you carefully create a character layer by layer by layer every time that character appears.
The best advice I can give you is this: Find a book where the characters resonate for you, where they feel alive and real. Tear that book apart. Read it slowly. Figure out, page by page (because it will be a layering of things) how the author brought those characters to life.
Then lather, rinse, and repeat… and apply what you’ve learned to your own work!
Stephen Leigh, who also writes under the name S.L. Farrell, is a Cincinnati author who has published twenty-seven novels and many short stories, including several for the WILD CARDS series, edited by George RR Martin. His newest novel is IMMORTAL MUSE (by Stephen Leigh), DAW Books, March 2014. PW Weekly gave it a starred review, saying “Leigh seamlessly inserts his two immortals into history, playing with actual people and events to deliver beautifully-rendered glimpses of different eras. Leigh strikes the perfect balance between past and present, real and imagined.”
FB (Stephen Leigh): https://www.facebook.com/stephen.leigh
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