Research for Character Development

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Earlier this month, I wrote a sort of general post about research for fiction writers. Today, I want to follow up and get a little more specific. Let’s talk about how to research certain aspects of character development, specifically things like disabilities, mental illness, and other traits that your characters might possess, but you do not.

Why does it matter?

This is important for two reasons. First, you want your characters to be believable. If they’re going to seem like real people with real lives and dreams and struggles, then you need to rely on reality. Your readers have to be able to relate to your characters.

The second reason–and I know this is going to annoy some of you, but deal with it–is so we don’t perpetuate harmful stereotypes or cause harm to vulnerable populations. It’s easy to say something like, “Oh, my character has OCD, so they do a lot of repetitive behavior,” but not research any of the underlying causes of obsessive compulsive disorder. The character becomes a stereotype and it might add to readers’ misunderstanding of real people with OCD. Or it might seriously insult someone who’s actually struggling with the disorder. On the other hand, an accurate, genuine portrayal of someone suffering from an anxiety disorder, such as obsessive compulsive disorder, might help your readers understand those people better.

If you want a good example of a character dealing with severe anxiety, check out John Green’s book Turtles All the Way Down. I read it when I was going through some really heavy stuff, and I felt like somebody finally understood me. It was amazing representation.

Different sources you might use

A lot of this is going to depend on your character and what you’re trying to research. Maybe they’re chronically ill or disabled, they could be addicts or homeless, or people facing systemic discrimination. It could also be something lighter, like they work in a certain field or have a specific hobby and you want to know more about their workplace culture or interests. There’s a lot of ground to cover.

I like to start broad and then get more specific as I go. This helps me establish a knowledge base that I can use to figure out exactly what information I need and come up with the right questions to ask.

Books, articles, and documentaries

Ideally look for pieces written by experts in the field, or by people writing firsthand accounts of their personal experience. You should also look for any criticism of your source; bad things get published all the time, and you need to make sure you don’t accidentally base your character’s traits on false or misleading information.

Secondhand information

This could still be books, articles, or documentaries, but it doesn’t have to be. You could also look into interviews. You could see about sitting in on a support group, Al-Anon for example, if your character is an alcoholic. The point here is to talk to people who have spent time around someone similar to your character. This will give you an outsider’s perspective of their personality and traits.

Firsthand information

At this point, you’re looking for information from a person whose circumstances are similar to your character’s. You could look at books and articles again. There’s YouTube. Online forums like Reddit are an option. You can also try attending support group meetings or doing one-on-one interviews. Also, try and get multiple firsthand sources if you can. Everybody’s experience is a little bit different, so it’ll be great for you to try and capture your character’s experience from multiple angles.

A lot of this is going to depend on what it is you’re researching. If you’re trying to learn more about a character’s job, try asking local companies if you can tour the facility. They might also have an ombudsman or liaison who would talk with you. Or if it’s a hobby, maybe there’s a local club that would let you sit in on a meeting.

Things to avoid

I think, first of all, you need to have a good reason behind writing this particular trait and this particular character. Remember that there are real people out there dealing with chronic illnesses, discrimination, and so on, every day of their lives, and it’s not quirky or cute for them. Accurate representation is great. However, if you find yourself turning someone’s struggles into a joke, or using them as an attention grabbing device, you should probably revisit your character’s traits.

Stereotypes and assumptions

This might be harder than you’d think. We all have unconscious biases toward certain things, and learning to see past those can be difficult. A good beta reader, or maybe even a sensitivity reader, might help point out issues you’re not seeing.

#Ownvoices

This has been a big, big one lately. With the way things have been going, I don’t think you’re going to be able to sell an #ownvoices type story to a traditional publisher if you’re not a member of that group any time soon. There’s been a lot of criticism lately toward publishers who buy, say, books with a Native American protagonist from white authors, but reject books by Native authors. I’m honestly glad to see things starting to change, and marginalized people getting a chance to speak their own truths.

I don’t want to tell you that you can’t write from whatever point of view, but at the same time, this is a real problem in the publishing world. It’s worthy of an entire post on its own, but I’m still trying to work out those details.

Twisting facts to suit your narrative

If your research doesn’t yield the result you wanted, don’t go forward with bad information anyway. Take the time to figure out how to portray your character correctly, even if it means changing your plot. If you can’t do that, write a different character.

Research isn’t always easy, but well rounded characters are worth the effort

You need your readers to fall in love with your characters. It’s worth investing time in developing them so they’re well-rounded and feel as much like real people as possible.

I’ll be back tomorrow with a post about target audiences, and I hope you’ll be here to check that out. How’s NaNoWriMo going? There’s only about a week left. Hang in there! You can do it!

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