Friday, June 24, 2022

Researching Your Characters--Why It's Important to Know as Much as You Can about Them

I've been revising my second novel, A Woman's Guide to Search & Rescue, in preparation for handing over to my editor and publication team in a month or so. This book has lived with me--its characters, as well--for many years. I'm excited to see them step on to a bigger stage with more readers. But before they do, I want to make sure they are fully realized on the page, as rich and vivid as they can be.

A few months ago, to finish my final tweaks on the cast in my novel, I took an online class on character interiority. The purpose of each week's lesson--there were four--was to help writers go from what they knew about the characters externally to what the characters could reveal about their inner lives.

I'd already spent many years on this, as I said, but the class drew even more out of me about these people I've lived with for so long.

If I were to pinpoint the most important take-away, it would be backstory.

If you've been in a writing class with me or read this blog for a while, you know how I feel about backstory: most writers overuse it, weigh their book down with it, frontload the actual story with too much of the past. I am in favor of books that draw me in without a lot of unnecessary history. But some history is necessary--because it provides the motivations we readers need, to understand character decisions and beliefs (and misbeliefs).

Just to test this in my almost-finished novel, I ran through the pages, highlighting backstory for each of the three narrators. The results surprised me.

Two of the three had what I felt was sufficient backstory. The third, not. And this third narrator was the one I'd always had trouble getting to know. So I tried an exercise. I asked myself who she reminded me of. in other books or short stories I'd written. (You can also do this by comparing a character to people you know.)

Between the class exercises and these two steps--highlighting actual backstory to track the quantity and placement and comparing an elusive (or backstory-less) character to someone I knew well on the page--helped me craft five or six small flashbacks to insert in the manuscript. I ran it by one of my more patient beta readers for another try, asking specifically if the elusive character had more interiority now, thanks to the backstory.

Yes, without question.

There are so many ways to access interiority. This character research is vital to good books, no matter the genre. Your book has a major and minor cast, whether you're writing fiction, memoir, or nonfiction. People move stories, illustrate theories and ideas, and rumble in the background of all great literature. It's up to you, the writer, to get to know them.

Try one of my steps above, if you're stumped at how to bring forth a more elusive character. Research their past, and honestly determine how much of that past actually shows up in the novel to define motive.

Then pretend you are a journalist interviewing them for an article. Write down 10-20 questions you might ask. Start with the ones below if you like; I use them whenever I need to get deeper into the motivation of my cast.

1. What’s your height, weight, eye color, hair color?
2. What do you like or dislike about your looks?
3. How old are you really? How do you feel about your age?
4. What is one thing that happened to you that you'd most like to forget?
5. What three things are in your refrigerator?
6. What is your biggest regret?
7. What’s your favorite possession? What would you do if you lost it forever?

Just take good notes. Be a researcher for your own book. You might learn some new things!

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