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Character Research

When it comes to doing research for a novel or story, the resources are endless. We typically turn first to non-fiction sources, writers documenting the history of the time.

Often, though, these accounts are written after-the-fact as the historian makes sense of the time. Immersing yourself in the time period, at the moment that the events in your fiction are taking place, is also important. Reading diaries and letters—present moment accounts—can be eye-opening. Newspapers and magazines, of course, are treasure troves of information. And above and beyond the news of the day, you can learn much about how life was lived. Look at the ads. What movies are playing at the theaters? How much does a new pair of shoes cost?

YouTube is also a rabbit hole of information. How did the American people learn of the attack on Pearl Harbor? What was the first footage broadcast on 9/11? You can watch President Wilson choosing the first man drafted into the army during WW1. And so on and so on and so on.

One of the best things, though, is to try and see the world through your character’s eyes. What books are in their TBR pile? What music do they listen to? What movies do they want to see this weekend? And then you can do some of those things. One of the best things about doing this is that you can see where your interests/likes overlap with your characters and where they vary. That can be extremely helpful in getting to know your characters a little bit better and in separating the character from yourself.

Exercises

  1. It’s Saturday night. What would your character want to do tonight? Dinner and a movie (assuming your character lived in the last 100 years!)? Okay, where would s/he like to go for dinner and what will s/he order? What movie to see? For research: check local newspapers for restaurants; check contemporary novels for food selections; check best movie lists for movies.
  2. What are the bestselling books during a week in your book? Peruse a list and choose a few to read. Are these books that your character would want to read, too? What do the books teach you about your character as well as the time? For research, check out best-seller lists.
  3. Watch TV during a week in your character’s life. What would they be watching? For US research, Wikipedia can be a treasure trove for TV.

by Laura Spence-Ash