Friday, October 26, 2018

The Joys of Character Research


It is a rare person who gets excited about the thought of research. However, writers do this all the time – often without knowing it. As we become writers, we start noticing the little details of the world. We start appreciating things with all our senses. Simple things suddenly have a meaning we never saw, and we start looking at the world with the mindset of, “How would I write that moment?”

We are a weird bunch indeed.

However, when it comes to writing about a particular subject or incorporating a specific element into our story, we might not yet have all the information. If we write about a doctor, our medical knowledge might be limited to Google and Wikipedia, which will not help that character much and it could weaken the writing. This is where we do a little research – just enough to make our writing stand out.

And yes, it’s fun.

So let’s say I have a character who is a bartender. I use this profession because I personally have a few years of experience behind the bar, and I know some details that would stand out. Mostly the little things – the different habits between full- and part-time bartenders, the lingo, different ways of life and so forth. Surprisingly, the least important detail for a bartender character would be knowing actual bartending  like how to mix drinks. Unless their character quirk was a special way of making a Long Island Iced Tea, it doesn't play a big role. Rather, the human details will make that bartender real – even if they never mix a drink in the narrative.

For convenience, this commentary covers the two schools of researching a subject – method research and inquisitive research. Each one has its pros and cons and both are effective. The real decision comes from which one best fits your process.

Method research is similar to method acting – just throwing yourself into the situation. In the bartender scenario, a writer would go to bars and study every motion of the bartenders. They would listen to how they spoke, watch their mannerisms, and compare how someone behind the bar at a bowling alley would differ from someone at a busy night club. It becomes investigation, all while the writer thinks about their character and how they would address situations. If the writer sees a bartender skillfully manage annoying customers, then they think whether their character has that kind of patience or social skills. How would their character work the customers for a tip? When they give back five dollars in change, is it all in singles and they give it to the customer with their hand right next to the tip jar?

This process is very intense, but it does have limitations. Some professions are not easily observed, such as the doctor we mentioned beforehand. Others are very difficult to access, such as first-responders, due to the very nature of the profession. For situations that can be easily observed, method research can give the writer a very hands-on feel for their subject.

The other school is inquisitive research, which reverses the method process. This starts by writing the character and putting them through their motions. The bartender section is written up (but not polished) to the point where the writer knows the character’s drives, motivations, and purpose in the scene. They focus on the character part, and then get people with bartending experience to look over the piece to make sure it sounds genuine. From there, it becomes a question-and-answer situation, with the writer trying to fit what they’ve written into what their bartender friend has experienced.

Similar to the method process, this has limitations. Do we have friends who have the experiences we are looking to write about? Is their opinion a good example to use? This is more difficult to apply for that reason, but the benefit is that the writer knows exactly what the character needs beforehand. If the bartender character is overworked, the writer can ask questions to their friends that directly address that point. The inquisitive part can be very specific: “What is the most you ever made in tips for one night? Give me an example of what a great busboy does. How about a bad busboy? Did your place call them busboys or barbacks?” These specific questions give the writer exactly what they need and little else. The writer might not know everything about the life behind the bar, but they know enough to make the character believable and genuine.

Most importantly, when you need to research a character, do not be afraid to ask around. Put yourself out there. Between you and me, I think people are quietly excited when they have a chance to help a writer create a character. Putting the word out that you are looking to talk to someone who knows a thing about bartending will usually draw a good response. If your friend has a friend who used to bartend, do not hesitate to ask if you could be introduced to them for a few minutes to help with your novel. The experience is well worth it, and you might get a free drink out of the deal.

Reminder: Include their name in the acknowledgements when you get published. It’s just common courtesy.

2 comments:

  1. For my last short story I performed old-fashioned, book-like research but didn't feel comfortable with using the information as part of my story. Sure it came from reliable sources, but it felt sterile which did not fit with my character. I chose to interview my father-in-law about his time in the service. From him I added some of his anecdotes in addition to factual locations, weapons, etc. I felt more confident about the writing, and I believe it added to the reader's perception of my character.

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    1. That's a nice hybrid way. It sounds like it fits your personal process very well

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