Stephen Leigh, on Seven Strategies for Characterization, part III


Steve Leigh headshot5: Research

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.

6: Acting

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.

IM Cover7: Listen to Others

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.”

Twitter: @sleighwriter
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20 comments to Stephen Leigh, on Seven Strategies for Characterization, part III

  • Thanks to everyone for taking the time to read and comment on this series, and thanks to Magical Words for letting me guest blog — it’s been fun! Hope you found at least some of this useful for your own writing.

  • Thank you for posting! This has been very helpful–hope you get to come back and visit again sometime.

  • You’re very welcome, SiSi! Glad you found stuff to use in it.

  • Steve, it has been terrific having you here and reading about your approach to character, which is thorough and sensitive and incredibly instructive. You refer to the search for empathy under the heading of acting, which I think is a great way of looking at it. In the past I’ve spoken about “befriending our characters,” the idea being that the same qualities that make us good friends to those we love (empathy, understanding, compassion — all the things that allow us to put ourselves in our friends’ shoes, as it were) make us good stewards of our characters as well.

  • @David — I think empathy also goes to the antagonist as well; as writers we need to understand and be able to sink (if only temporarily) into the mindset of our “bad” characters as well as the “good” ones… or otherwise we risk making the antagonist just a flat “evil” character.

    BTW, if you want to see me making a complete and utter fool of myself while flogging the new book, go here: Just remember that it’s all Jim Hines’ fault!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I’ll chime in with the agreement chorus that this has been a wonderfully thorough look at techniques for characterization. I am currently working on your #7 point, having recently received (from two friends) beta-reader feedback on my book. The book has three MCs, and *neither* of my betas really liked the MC who has always been my favorite. On the other hand, both of their favorites was the MC I’ve always had the hardest time getting into the head-space of, and they pointed out that one of the big reasons why they liked that story line best was because of her close interactions with a secondary character. It helped me to realize that I has seriously neglected the friendship relationship important to my favorite MC by the way I had constructed his storyline. The friendship was very solid and real in my head, but I’d let myself get distracted with other concerns and hardly any of it had actually made it onto the page. When I asked for brief feedback on impressions of a list of secondary characters, that MCs friend was the *only* one for which one of my beta readers said she really didn’t have any impression! So! back to revisions for me, with some excellent new ideas, though I am feeling somewhat daunted at the moment, since I don’t have the oomph to do any more fiddling with the actually events of the story. 🙂

  • @Hepseba — sounds like you received some excellent feedback that will help your story quite a bit, which is exactly what you want from your beta readers. Yay!

  • A great series of posts, Stephen. Thank you. I love your comment about being an actor while writing – I think I may do this sometimes, without realizing it. My son often tells me I act out of character, and now I realize he wasn’t quite right: I was acting out A character. I’ll be so deep into the person I am writing, that I’ll respond AS that character.
    I hope you stick around, and continue to be a part of the MW family. Even if you aren’t the Big Name up top, it’ll be fun and informative for us all if you’d continue to drop in now and then in the comments section!

  • @Lyn — Thanks, and much appreciated. And I have to say that, gee, there are characters in my books who I hope I *don’t* walk around responding as. That’d be scary. 🙂

  • Stephen S.P.

    I admire your courage to tackle historical periods, such as Paris 1300, Rome 1630, etc. I have always been afraid to write any kind of historical fiction, knowing full well that there are plenty of history buffs out there who will call me on my inaccuracies. I once watched movie set in Medieval times and a friend of mine couldn’t stop carping on the the fact the armor that the knights were wearing was incorrect for the time period. I watched a war movie with my father one time, and he was quick to point out that the remote that a soldier used to detonate a bomb hadn’t been invented yet.

  • Regarding feedback, I think it was Harlan Ellison who said your first reader should be someone who isn’t afraid to make you cry.

  • @Wolf: I like that. 🙂

  • Razziecat

    I especially like the idea of applying all these techniques to the villain. I hate cardboard, two-dimentional villains, and I write better ones when I can actually get into their heads. Just this week, while waiting for a hard drive to be replaced on my computer, I went back to an old notebook with an unfinished story, and found myself really getting into the story again, finally seeing how to get past the block that had kept me from finishing it. Part of that was a new and intense interest in the motivations, emotions and personality of the bad guy.

    I really enjoyed these posts on characterization. 😀

  • @Razziecat — Glad you enjoyed the posts. I have to say that the “villain” in my last series, Sergei, was actually my favorite character to write…

  • quillet

    I love your idea of “acting” the characters. I never really thought of it that way before, but you’re right, you’re so right. I think I was doing that without knowing it — for dialogue scenes especially. It can look decidedly odd from the outside. Me, pacing around muttering and making faces and gesticulating. But it helps me get into my characters’ heads and out of my own, as it were. And yes, sometimes they do and say and think things I never would. Which is cool, and fun, but sometimes a wee bit scary. As in, did I really invent that? Yikes! 😉

    I’ve loved all your posts on character, even though I haven’t always managed to comment. As Lyn said, I hope you’ll stick around in the comments here!

  • @quillet — Sounds like you’re Academy Award caliber at acting for your characters… 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the posts.

  • This has been a really cool series and I’m glad to know I’m pretty much on track with my characters and dialogue. After all, I would hope I’m getting something right after 28 years (just had my 43rd birthday) of doing this. 😉

  • Oh, and come back soon! 😀

  • @Daniel — Thanks, and I’ll try to do that! And net, we’re *all* still trying to get something right, no matter how long we’ve been doing it.

  • “And net…”??? That should have been “And hey…” See, I still don’t get things right!