Compelling book characters – believable, breathing characters – are a constant challenge to a writer. Touching the reader’s heart, drawing them into identifying with book characters and leaving a lingering trace of them in readers’ lives, all this is often a matter of research, as Morgann Peters describes in today’s How to be an Author guest post.
The Writer’s Inner Journey to Compelling Book Characters
by M Peters
As a writer, I’m not sure I spend enough time talking about myself, or the process I use to sink into my book characters‘ heads, but while I was picking up dinner last night and listening to the local NPR station, I heard someone interviewing an author named Bill Cheng and asking him how he managed to create scenes based around something he himself had never, ever experienced, and the answer struck a chord with me.
His subject was surrounding that of the effects of the devastating 1927 Mississippi flood and the story he created around the survival of one orphaned boy. His connection to the story – and what inspired him to write it – was the blues music which gained its foothold around that time. He goes on to say, after being asked in the interview, how someone from New York City, who’s never been anywhere near a swamp, could create such wonderful, memorable characters, that while he realises that the hours and hours of research he was involved in while writing the book didn’t all translate into his work, it did enrich his writing because it gave him a confidence he needed to write compelling scenes. It seasoned him as a writer, to be able to learn all sorts of things about the time period and the people about whom he was writing, and enabled him to create compelling stories based around these tidbits of research.
And I think that’s a huge part of the writer’s inner journey – that we need to become comfortable with the people and places about whom we’re writing. Even if we’re creating an entirely alternate, fantasy universe, there are still details which need to be placed in there to give our narrative voices the confidence to fool our readers into thinking that we know what we’re talking about.
Personally, I love learning about the time in which I write. My first novel, Undisclosed Desire, took me nearly a year to write because I felt I wasn’t crawling quite far enough into the characters’ time – some vague place in the mid sixteenth century – to give myself a grasp on what they were seeing. So I hopped on to the research train and spent some time with Google and various historical sites, getting to know what my characters wore and saw and ate … and suddenly, I felt much more in control. I had traveled along the same roads with them even as I created their joys and sorrows, just by discovering that their nightdresses were made of silk or that the apples they ate were called ‘custard apples’ because of their sweet taste.
There are, of course, two sides to something like this. If we bog our readers down with details, then we lose the flow of the story. Which is why I think it’s important that the research the author does infuses the author more than ends up in the writing itself. A little bit of research goes a long, long way, after all, and it infuses the author’s writing with flavour and authenticity that readers like myself find intriguing. Perhaps I can’t speak for every reader, but I enjoy being drawn into the world of the characters about whom I’m reading, and if the author can show me that he or she has taken the time to craft the world, and love it so well that they have endeavored to learn about the people and places they are creating, then I’m certainly more likely to come back for seconds and thirds of the author’s work. Do any of you feel that way? Tell me in the comments below! And, most of all, thank you for coming along on this journey with me – I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
How do you research your work? Do you just write? Or do you, like Mo Peters, research carefully to give yourself the background to “enrich your writing”?
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