In the name of research…Part 3 – Characters

November 26, 2012

In my last two posts I talked about research for Settings and Plot. In this last post in the research series I’ll share some of my tips for character research. Characters need to live, breathe and feel. How do you make your characters jump off the page as if they are real? Here are some practical ways.

#1 Get amongst it:  If you are going to write about people then the best references are living people. Many writers combine the best, and worst, characteristics of people they know to form the personality of their characters but you can find traits for your characters everywhere you look. People-watching should be a habit. Observing people’s actions, expressions, and non-verbal signals can help you write fresh and lifelike characters. Make up stories that match the actions of the people you see to get the creative juices flowing (even more fun if you do it with a friend).

#2 Open your ears:  Listening to the way people speak can help make your dialogue more realistic. Get out into different settings and listen to how conversations and language change. A conversation in a pub may be very different to one in a library, even if it’s the same people speaking. Tape people speaking so you can listen back and pick up on the different inflections and dialects used. This can be particularly helpful if your character is a different nationality or gender because you can pick up nuances you aren’t familiar with (handy too if you’ve had too many drinks in the pub)

#3 Talk the talk:  Learn as much as you can about your characters then try to hold a conversation in their world. Try chatting with the kind of people they would hang out with, work with, socialize with – the good, the bad and the flaky. It’s great if you can do this in person, but if you can’t there are online forums out there covering just about every topic imaginable where you can join in and talk with like-minded people. You might even pick up new ideas and traits for your characters. I’ve managed to hold chats with people in the military and policing fields that helped me to glean information and terms/slang that my characters use that wouldn’t normally be available by more traditional means of research (including some that I couldn’t repeat in front of my children!).

#4 Walk in their shoes:  Try doing some of the things your character does. Got a nurse in your story – volunteer at a hospital and find out first-hand what it’s like to be her, dealing with the pressure and the long hours on her feet. How about a high speed chase? Book yourself into for a few hot laps in a race car and feel what it’s like to drive at breakneck speed (without being pulled over by the police). Some of the things I have done to get inside my characters’ heads (and just for fun) include racing a buggy over harrowing jungle trails in torrential rain, hiking through untamed rainforest and up creekbeds, riding horses through the desert and boats across rough seas, and flying aerobatics in a war plane. I’ve shot targets and clay pigeons and been shot at and played the role of sniper in paintball (yes it still hurts like hell). All of these things, and many more, helped me to describe my main character’s physical and mental responses to these experiences so I could bring them to life on the page.

 #5 Take it from the horse’s mouth:  I admit, to the outsider this statement might seem a bit crazy, but talk to your characters. It’s one of those pieces of advice that writers should only say aloud to other writers unless they want to get that ‘cuckoo’ stare. Another word of advice – do it in private. I was on a plane travelling to Cairns with a work colleague and as I was writing I said aloud to my character…’So, should I kill you in Brisbane or in Cairns.’ I think I frightened my colleague half to death! Of course, writers are not all crazy. We do know we are talking to ourselves – albeit to a subconscious space that our characters have taken up in our minds. Milk your characters for information to get to know them. Design questionnaires to interview them. Find out what motivates them, what are their greatest fears and their greatest desires. Put them in situations and ask them how they would respond. They are, after all, the best person to tell you all about themselves. If I sound crazy then it’s probably wise to wait until you know your characters better. The more a character unfolds on the page, the more intimate you become with them.

#6 Seek out real life heroes (and villains): If your character is a real person, or just from a real place or time, there is a wealth of real life information out there you can use to zest them up. Try searching for biographies or free public records on sites such as or which will give you all sorts of information including births/deaths/marriages, property, military, court records, etc. The list is endless. In fact it might frighten you how much public information is readily available around the world. Even researching your own family, you might find some skeletons in the closet. I recently did a genealogical search on my family which led me to some very interesting newspaper accounts of the 1800’s that involved intrigue and murder (my family being the victims). These characters are already begging to be eternalized in fiction but I’ll have to keep them at bay until I finish my current project.  

That’s it for my research tips. I hope you have found them helpful and would love to hear more of yours.



12 Responses to “In the name of research…Part 3 – Characters”

  1. Laurie Smith on November 28th, 2012 3:47 am

    Good one Lea, very informative. Acting out scenes is so important, not those scenes :-). I work through fight scenes, knife fights, reaction times for shooting ( I have a couple of replica firearms ). I get my wife to attack me with a plastic spatula for a knife and work through the moves.
    My characters wake me in the middle of the night and start chatting about their roles, that can get spooky. Robert E Howard of Conan the Barbarian fame would lock himself in his room for hours on end practicing sword fights.
    You are dead right in your blog, you have to live the parts or at least get as close as possible. It’s all grist for the mill, love your series.

  2. Emeka Iwenofu on November 28th, 2012 5:10 pm

    I agree with you Lea. In fact, I wrote and self published a powerful book called Jackie’s Miracle or It discusses of a young woman named Jackie, who was abused neglected, engaged in drugs and alcohol before going to off prison for her violent crimes and then mentored by her parole officer upon her release from prison, who mentors her on powerful success techniques that send the young girl on a magical journey beyond what she ever thought possible. This is a telling story of what can be done with the power of the human mind irregardless of your circumstances and situations. Take care and good luck to you.

  3. George B Vieto on November 30th, 2012 3:36 pm

    Thank you for the story. I try to do stories based on real life heroes and bad guys. Also use expressions from people I know.

  4. Skip Knox on December 1st, 2012 11:50 am

    This advise is less useful for the historical novelist, also for fantasy stories. It would be pretty foolish of me to try to dress up in armor and ride a horse around, and downright inconvenient to try to find a dragon to ride.

    That said, one has to be very careful with dialog in such stories. An anachronistic phrase can take the reader right out of the story. Worse, what’s natural-sounding to one reader might sound out of place to another. It’s a real challenge.

    I have to admit I do not tend to pull characteristics from people I know, or at least I don’t do it consciously. For me it is all a matter of imagination. If I have a character who is a wool merchant, or a castle guard, or the commander of a Roman legion, I try to put myself in that person’s role, to see through his eyes. Then, as the backstory grows, I try to see not just as a Roman soldier but as that particular Roman soldier, at that particular moment. When I’m working at that level, thinking about modern thought and speech patterns is more of a distraction than a help.


  5. James Osbourne on December 2nd, 2012 8:56 pm

    Thanks Lea for starting an excellent thread. I expect all writers find defining their characters a challenge. The suggestions on your post, have added many ideas I’ve not considered or forgotten and are a great help. Once drove the Indianapolis Speedway (one circuit, off season, regular car) but a useful experience for a future chase scene, and as a journalist was privileged with many experiences others may not have, some not so good like a couple of death threats. But now that’s all potential grist for a future novel’s mill, thanks to your prompts. I’m following you and have bookmarked your blog there’s losts more there I want to explore. Great blog, Lea!

  6. Audrey Reimann on December 2nd, 2012 8:56 pm

    It’s easier if you fall in love with your opposite gender character. Then the character can be everything you look for in life. He/she has to have flaws of course – but love is blind. The difficulty lies in creating villains. But once you get beneath the skin and the baddie of either sex begins to behave villainously, the writing flows and the imagination flies.

  7. Charlotte Elgaisma on December 2nd, 2012 8:57 pm

    I actually find it easier to write men in the main character position. In fact middle-aged Mum of three is the last thing in the world I want to sit down and right. With main characters I find it useful to “cast” them with an actor that looks a little like them and to “stalk” the actor round YouTube noting mannerisms and speech patterns. Also having scrapbooks of their setting, clothing, pets, cars etc is a useful resource. Clothing allows me to have an idea of nervous ticks like sucking the collar, brushing down their clothes, twiddling with their cuffs etc

  8. Richard Sharp on December 3rd, 2012 10:31 pm

    My golden rule is: never let your protagonists give a damn what the reader thinks about them. The characters should only respond to each other. If you try to make your characters too lovable, pure good, pure evil or pure anything, they become caricatures. Once the readers get the sense that you are trying to manipulate them into loving or hating certain characters, they are likely to be turned off. Let the readers form their opinions as observers of the protagonists’ behavior.

  9. Kenneth Weene on December 3rd, 2012 10:33 pm

    What makes a character real? If they sweat, fart, feel, and even complain, that helps. If they talk like they are who they are supposed to be, that helps, too. Most of all, if we let them have their own existence and react to the world as they are, that means we have set them free to be real. Perhaps one of the best theater pieces I have ever seen is Pirandello’s Tonight We Improvise. The characters are so stereotypical that the intensity of their personal reactions becomes breathtaking. The same effect is found in Brecht’s epic approach to theater. In the end, realism is best served by characters that take over their “lives”. Perhaps my best work in that regard is Tales From the Dew Drop Inne. One chapter, Picnic, is also available in the best of Empirical, an anthology from Empirical Magazine that just came out.

  10. Philip Catshill on December 4th, 2012 3:53 pm

    I am an observer of life, and in life, I have noticed that no two people are the same. I try to reflect this in my crime novels by giving each character unique mannerisms and speech idoms which will readily identify them.I apply this even to minor characters. Should I decide to enlarge on these cameos in a later novel, giving them an individual identity helps the reader remember them and their role they played.
    I have to keep track of the characters by keeping them on a spreadsheet. As yet, Kenneth, I do not have a column for a character with a tendancy to break wind, but I have one who complains and another who dithers. Only one character ever says Okay, another says fine when it obviously isn’t. Stroke damage has left me with a speech difficulty which one character shares – we both suffer dysphasia – so that we can throw in the odd wrong word now and then.
    Most reviewers say my characters are realistic.
    One important tip in character development is to drip feed the character to the reader. Just as life, only reveal as much as is necessary to keep the story moving. I
    I recently started to read a hospital story where every character was introduced in the first chapter with a hair and clothing description, a not very brief history of their education and career to date and… no, I can’t tell you what the story was about because I never got to chapter two.

  11. Louise Pelzl -W/A Z.Minor on December 7th, 2012 8:10 am

    Great information, thanks. Z

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Lea Scott