When I was writing the first draft of my novel, somewhere in the middle of a chapter I ground to a complete halt. For weeks I’d been riding the high of pounding the keyboard in a glorious rush, but now I was out of material. I had no idea what happened next.
I sulked. I screamed. I ate too much chocolate. I considered a new career opening a chocolate shop where I could sample the wares. I did everything except write, because whenever I tried all I got was more silence.
The epiphany came days late. I was stuck because I didn’t know my characters well enough. And because I didn’t know my characters, I didn’t know what they would do next.
By day, I make my living as a nonfiction writer. When I get stuck, the answer is easy: I don’t know enough about the subject. The answer is to do your research.
Even if you’re writing fiction and you’re literally making up your material, it turns out the answer is the same: do your research.
But how do you research imaginary people? Pretty much the same way you’d research real people and situations.
My favorite way to conduct research is to interview people. You don’t have to find someone who is exactly the same as your character (and that may even be impossible). However, search for people in similar circumstances whether it’s emotional states, careers, life situations etc. or experts who may be able to provide insight into your character’s setting. And for more tips on how to conduct an interview, check out my previous post on how to interview.
Start with background information
I’m writing a book inspired loosely by my partner’s childhood in Zimbabwe. I had no idea how to plot it and what should happen. So, to start with, I spent hours asking him about his childhood. Then I talked to his family and his friends and their friends.
I was upfront about what I was doing and I think this helped people open up because they didn’t worry that I was going to use their names. Once I’d conducted several hours of interviews, I took a step back, read through the interviews and was able to put together the loose outline of a plot.
Don’t be afraid of hypothetical questions
During one of my interviews, I had a lightbulb moment when my partner’s best friend said, look, if you ask me hypothetical questions about your character, I could tell you what I would do in that situation.”
Giving him scenarios and having him explain what he’d be thinking about and reacting was enormously helpful because he was able to give me tons of details that I would have never thought to ask about.
Ask the experts
Get some help from an expert. A friend of mine was writing a book about sea dwelling
creatures who had hidden in a massive bomb under a glacier. She consulted another friend getting her PhD in glaciology and they cooked up a plausible situation.
When I needed to understand the history of Asian immigration for my YA novel, I emailed a university professor asking for her class syllabus. I hadn’t dared to imagine that a professor would be willing to talk to me about a book that I hadn’t finished writing, much less sold, but she actually offered to sit down with me to get the history right, which in turn helped me understand how my characters should behave.
If you can swing it, try to visit the places your characters live, or similar locations. COVID quashed my Zimbabwe dreams (one day!), but for my YA novel, which is set in a boarding school, a friend’s sister actually gave me a tour of her boarding school. Walking through the buildings made me picture my character’s daily routine and think about the gaps in my understanding. For example, I’d never considered how you get snacks when all your meals are provided by the cafeteria, or what lights out meant for characters.
Also, if you are lucky enough to do a field visit, document as much as possible. Record video so you remember the sounds, and at the very least take pictures. If that’s not possible, draw a diagram and label it. Memory is fickle and the last thing you want is for your hard work to go to waste.
Consult primary and secondary sources
It’s not always possible to find someone to interview, but the internet and libraries are a
treasure trove of primary and secondary sources. Hit the books, read through articles, and comb through websites, but also consider these sources as well:
If possible, I like to start with videos, and thanks to YouTube and Google videos the world is at your fingertips. Videos are almost as good as in person interviews or field sites because you can observe someone’s mannerisms or get a better idea of the setting your character operates in.
My partner had spent a brief amount of time working in a furniture factory, but I didn’t understand how the machine he used worked until I googled a video. I could hear the neverending whine of wood grating against metal, and see all the pointy bits that could take off fingers. It gave me a far deeper appreciation of the job than his explanation. I was also able to find walkthrough videos of his school, as well as the commercials that were popular when he was growing up.
Also: watch movies set on location or during the era you’re trying to write about so you can get the feel of your character’s environment and how that would shape them.
Oral histories are a great way to hear someone tell their own story in their own words. A good interviewer is trying to get someone to tell their story, so even if you don’t get to ask the questions, chances are the oral history may cover the information you need or at least teach you something you don’t know.
If you are writing about a real location, Google Maps Street View is a godsend. I’ve walked up and down my partner’s old neighborhood several times, visited the temple he went to, and traced his route to school.
Even if you end up making changes in your novel, having a basic understanding of your character’s setting and their daily routine can be very helpful. When I teach courses, I ask students to either find or draw a map of the setting that their character spends the most time in.
Similarly, Google images is a great way to solidify images that are blurry in your head. I have friends who like to “cast” actors as their main characters so they can describe them better. At a writer’s conference, Alexander Chee said Google Images helped him describe the fabulous opera costumes Lilliet wore in Queen of the Night.
If you can’t picture something—your character’s hair, favorite dress, house, flowers—Google it.
What’s your favorite way to learn about your characters? Let me know in the comments!
Art: Interieur Burg Kreuzenstein, Bibliothek by Franz Poledne