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From Concept to Shelves: Research Part 1 - Characters

Research will take the longest time to complete because, frankly, I don't think it ever does finish until the final draft is submitted for publishing.  Unfortunately I often find more that I could have used long after the final word has been written.

As I said, it never ends.

Once I reach the point where research can be done I break it down into the following;

  1. Character research:  Backgrounds, education (including where & when), family backgrounds.  I get into each character's personality and ask questions that will control how they react in the story.
  2. Location research:  Where will the novel take place... what's the major "attractions", what's it known for?  Then, once the very basic encyclopedic knowledge is gleaned I start getting more in depth -- I use Google Streets, Google Map, etc.  I chat with people who live there.  Eventually I will even travel there, if its required, and live there for awhile to get a feel for the place as a local would.  For Cold, we're not at this stage yet.
  3. Plot research:  Is what I want to happen, for the plot and subplots, realistic?  Why, or why not?  What can I do to make it realistic or what changes need to be made?
Some writers start at plot research and work their way back from there.  I've given you the exact order that I work.  With me, it's the people first.  Their locale shapes then shapes them.  Finally, I throw in the monkey wrench -- the plot -- and see how they "react" within the parameters I've given them.

Not literally, of course, but through talking it out and envisioning it.  Short little bursts of disconnected scenes to test the waters.

We'll get into that in a later blog post as this blog post is about the first part of the research, and that's all about the characters.

If you've read anything I've written you already know that my writing is all based on the characters and how they act and react to any given plot.  My characters are often described as being nearly real, which is something I strive for.  If I haven't breathed enough life into someone on that page that I've tricked you into thinking they're real I haven't done my job.

Sometimes, I admit I do this by basing my characters off of people I know.  Usually I do it by creating a whole new person right down to the tics that define them.  I achieve this through extensive research so that every last little detail, if it's mentioned, adds up and fits together like a classic Swiss watch.

How I Create, and Research, a Character

The first step is to create the character in the first place, and give them a very general concept.  This is the template I use:

General Age:
Character archetype:
Three words to describe their personality:
Three words to describe their appearance:
Role in the story:
If they had a business card, what would it say on it?

It's not very in depth but it gives me a quick jump start, or, a very rough first impression of them.  It's like meeting them for the first time and shaking hands.  I haven't talked to them very much beyond a few things I can fit into half a Rolodex card, or even the back of a business card.  Coincidentally, this is also something I do when someone hands me their business card -- it helps me remember who they are and keeps the face with the business card.

Once I have the general 'back of the business card' idea for each character in the novel -- or, at least, the major players in it -- I move onto writing their dossier.  Each character gets a duo-tang where their 'business card' is clipped to the inside cover.  From there -- and this is where I give away the fact that I like to play RP games -- I create their character sheet and usually, for this, I like to use Palladium's "Beyond the Supernatural" and their method of building a character.  The reason for this is that it creates a set of statistics of what a character can and cannot do, complete with skills, strengths, weaknesses, and educational background using quantifiable parameters.  I build their history, right down to where and when they went to school, extracurricular activities, likes and dislikes, apparent and hidden agendas, etc.  If I feel it's needed I also build their family background as well, but I may not go into as much detail unless their family directly factors into the plot... at which point I can do it when it comes up.

To really get into their shoes I will, once I have the general idea of who they are, find someone and plainly tell them why I want to know what they're willing to share.  If I have written that my main character is a medical doctor, I talk to medical doctors and find out what is exactly what.  In some cases I can't and it's here I have to rely on filling in details.  Some characters you just can't find their real life counterpart because it doesn't exist.

I will warn you that this can take awhile, and for Cold I'm still in the process.

Thankfully, it doesn't mean I can't research other things at the same time...


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