Character research is an imperative first step during the pre-writing process, as it aids in crafting exceptional characters for your story. Your job as the writer is to bring your story’s characters to life, and create a fully immersive experience for your readers.
Rarely is a character a complete carbon copy of its writer. They may share traits—many traits, even—but there are almost always some level of deviation from the original inspiration. To write a believable character that is different from the writer, or even one that is similar, thorough research becomes a writer’s best friend.
Not only does research aid in adding realism to a character, but it can also add depth as the writer discovers new concepts to serve as inspiration and plot-fuel.
As we move through the three-step researching process, we will be using character research as a basis, but keep in mind that these three steps can help you research and address any facet of your writing—from craft and story structure to story settings and world building.
The 3-Step Guide to Character Research
There are a few types of sources to use when performing character research, and a healthy mix of all of them is paramount to believability. A writer should collect a repertoire of academic sources, personal accounts, and first-hand interviews to aid in their research.
An academic course, such as an article, a book, or another peer reviewed item, provides real, factual knowledge on a subject—in this case, your fictional character.
A personal account provides information about a subject—your character—in the context of an individual’s life. A first-hand interview that you conduct with a person with the trait you are researching, or an expert on the subject, will answer your specific questions and allow you to ask follow-up questions to extract the exact information that you need.
Step #1 Identify what you need to research
The first step to researching is to know what specific question you are trying to ask. Broad questions can be helpful, but a narrower, more concise question will yield more helpful results.
For example, if you are a person without a mental illness, you might want to know what it is like to have depression. You might scour the internet and search for the keyword “depression”. From there, you would likely be met with pages from medical websites giving lists of symptoms and treatments. These can be helpful but are unlikely to explain exactly how depression affects an individual’s ability to do schoolwork, or how having a parent with depression impacts a child’s development.
More specific search terms will provide more specific and detailed answers. This is especially true in interviews.
Step #2 Gather your research and organize the information
The second step is to gather your sources. These days, most sources can be found on the internet using your favorite search engine, but physical books, journals, and other materials still have their place in research.
When selecting sources from the internet, ensure that they are factual or at least are supported by empirical evidence. When selecting books and other sources, ensure that they are not outdated. When selecting people to interview, ensure that they have experience or expertise in their subject.
While the internet, other physical media, and personal interviews will create the bulk of your research, do not forget that everyone’s experiences are unique and you will often find contrasts or differing levels in your research—particularly when researching character traits.
Either way, as you gather your information, add it to your character journal and consider how these different aspects of their character might impact the storyline. Will your storyline change given the new information gathered throughout your research process?
Step #3 Implement what you’ve learned into your story
The third step is to take the information you have gained and apply it to your writing. Ask yourself how your research will worm its way into your story. Where can you add details discovered during your researching process to add depth and dimension into your story?
Going with our example of character research, think of how the researched character trait interacts with other traits and with other characters within your story. Furthermore, which newfound facts are worth mentioning, and which ones should just be kept as context to consider?
Implementing information is always difficult and requires a healthy balance between exposition, action, thoughts and internal monologue, and character dialogue. Be sure not to “infodump” all your research onto a single paragraph, and instead show it through your character’s actions and responses to their environment.
The same goes for settings and world building, or story structure—or whatever topic you need to research to craft an exceptional story.
Now, even after you have completed your character research, there are more things you need to outline. For this example, that means your character profile. After you’ve outlined your character’s core traits, what are more specific questions you could ask to guide them through their journey while staying true to who they are and how you’ve outlined them?
What are a few basic questions to ask your character?
- Who am I?
- Where am I?
- When is it?
- Where have I just come from?
- What do I want?
- Why do I want it?
- Why do I want it now?
- What will happen if I don’t get it?
- How will I get what I want by doing what?
Asking your characters these guided questions will help you establish who they are as a character, where they currently are, where they want to be, and how they will get there [to their goal].
Just as the writing process is, performing character research can be a fun and exhilarating experience—and something every writer does with or without realizing. After all, there is a reason writers worry about their search histories…because most people would think we have something seriously wrong with us if nonwriters were to venture into the abyss that is our research.
Whether it be character research, or a quick search for anything else under the sun, there are many things writers have amateur knowledge in because we force ourselves to understand it for the betterment of our stories. So, Writer, what will you research next?