Researching Characters

We all know it’s a good idea to know, in general, what a character’s good and bad at, what she looks like, and what her personality’s like. Most games will let you get away with just that (all right, plus or minus a little backstory); most writing gives you a chance to fill in details afterward, and both leave plenty of opportunity to extrapolate more about the character from your observations as you use her. But there are some cases where you can’t just do that; you’re going to have to crack the books to know how to get the character across properly.

Sometimes, the research is on something that the character does, to try to make her seem more convincingly skilled. It’s rather silly to have a seasoned general who doesn’t display any particular grasp of tactics, or a violin player who wouldn’t know what to do with rosin, or a cook who can’t tell marjoram from margarine from marmalade. The more grounded in reality the job is, the harder this gets—magic systems can be partway improvised, an herbalist in a fantasy world might use as many plants that were added to the world just for the herbalist to use as ones that people would be familiar with, but it’s a lot harder to talk real-world auto repair when you’ve never looked under a hood.

Other times, it’s on the character’s roots. Messing up on how a character approaches a hobby or a livelihood when the audience is in the know can be embarrassing, but messing up on a real-world (or blatantly borrowed from real-world) culture and not recognizing it as such can be downright offensive. As a result, one of the most important reasons to do one’s homework before actually introducing a character from someone else’s culture is to make sure that the character reflects the culture and not just one stereotypical facet of it. (Granted, there’s a certain amount of slack to be cut for people who get things wrong but are trying to get better, but that only works if you’re actively trying, and doing your own research rather than only asking a few people questions, and willing to take it gracefully when you’re caught messing up.)

Any conlanger will tell you that even if you aren’t dealing with a real-world language, dialect or accent, you’re still going to want to do a bit of research before whatever you’ve got. After all, it’s still got to sound like a real language—and while you can get away with not knowing too many tenses, if your parts of speech are wandering around the sentence like sheep in a new meadow, and there isn’t so much as a particle or an ending to hint at where they’re supposed to be, people are going to be at least as unconvinced as confused. Knowing how languages are put together isn’t going to guarantee that you don’t contradict yourself, but at least it makes even randomly chosen gibberish just a bit likelier to sound like something. And if you’ve got a real language, or a real accent, it’s just sensible to make sure you know how it works (though fortunately, the accent can be done by finding a reliable source done in a similar voice and just reading it—I practiced for one of my characters by reading a folk history of Ireland.)

And sometimes it’s not even that plot-important, but makes for nice color. The same character I’ve been researching an accent for, for instance, draws from several other banks of knowledge: Irish folktales, to give her things to draw allusions to at interesting moments (reading a kids-book treatment of one of the Finn McCool stories actually gave me a point of reference when she was being difficult to pin down); random literary quotes, as those are what most of her magic is based on; a little bit of text illumination, because that’s what her most complicated magic is also based on (and because, since she’s here and garnering feedback right now, she gives me more impetus to do that research than getting it together for when I actually start novel-writing again). I don’t have to look into any of those fields, but if I do, it makes me feel like she’s more grounded in her world, and gives the added bonus of an in-joke to chuckle over if someone else gets my references.

I overall find that the more real-world the setting I’m dealing with is, the more I tend to insist on doing my homework before beginning a character. How about you? What’s your average, and what sorts of things cause you to research more or less?


  1. UZ says:

    This is a bit unrelated, but have you found that, after a certain amount of technical research, you have difficulty writing? I’ve had this happen several times – the most notable was one occasion where I did some research on mortared stone (apparently the principle – baking lime in a reducing atmosphere and then later mixing it with water &c – has been a known technology for thousands of years).

    There was this town, see, and the big town defender seemed uninterested in defending the town. Then one of the kids found that said defender was actively sabotaging the town’s defense efforts and seemed to be having conversations with a pendant that his dead wife used to wear. So the kids decided that he was crazy, and all left the town to form the Empire of Aurea out of a slightly over-romantic sense of self-protection. Part of the time-marking in the story was the construction of Castle Merrifax, their first fortress. Therefore, mortared stone – and I realized I had no idea how the old castles were built.

    So I read, and I found out a lot about the subject, and the details of how exactly you could build a credible-looking castle with Roman Empire technology can be pretty interesting. But I found afterwards my head was sort of numbed, and I couldn’t write anything worthwhile for several days afterward.

    Has this been your experience at all?

  2. Ravyn says:

    Hm. It depends on whether the research was required by or inspired the material, I think–there have been a few cases (as with the character I mentioned, who just wasn’t working until I flipped through the kids’ book on the sly at work), where the research has gotten me to create. Though I think you’re right, when you have to study it because you know you need it, it’s a lot harder to get to the writing itself.

    How were you reacting to the study material? That might have made a difference.

  3. UZ says:

    The study material was interesting enough – it provided some extra imagery for the story, since reduced lime (unused mortar) had to be kept waterproof in the fairly leaky original Castle Merrifax, which the Emperor of Aurea built by himself out of unfinished scrap wood. (He was the Empire’s only citizen at that time.)

    Hence, during the later building project the Throne Room was partly given over to the storage of sealed jam jars full of grey powder. That seemed appropriately kiddy to me somehow. Not to mention the grave of the Thirteenth Knight… but I digress.

    The research itself fit with the story, and although it was a bit on the technical side it wasn’t particularly brain-breaking or unrelated. I’m not sure why it had the effect it did.

  4. Ravyn says:

    It could have been the fact that it was work in the same way the writing was, only without the immediate reward of seeing progress in black and white behind you. I’ve found that ‘assigned reading’ cools my interest in my work more than almost anything else I do; not long ago, one of my friends started a game in someone else’s world, and there were books I just couldn’t get myself to read because I ‘had’ to read them to keep up knowledge-wise with the rest of the players. Self-control, one of the books I’ve been mining for ideas points out, is like a muscle–the more you use it, the more tired it gets. So it might be that you’ve been using the same sort of control to get yourself to read as to get yourself to write. Doesn’t happen the same way with reading for reading’s own sake, since that just gets coded as ‘fun’.

    At least, that’s what I would assume was going on if it were me. Sound about right?

  5. UZ says:

    I’m not sure that’s it, because when it’s a self-control / determination problem, I usually find myself doing something else. Instead what happens is that I can still write, but the words come out like bits of wood and lie there dead on the page, and then I go back and read them and think, “well that sucked.” (This happens sometimes, which is why I review my work on a frequent basis.)

    And in the same way, the research isn’t work or I’d avoid it, and it’s more the opposite. Classical / Early Modern architecture is an interesting subject – usually in a case like this I have to know when to stop reading, because otherwise too many technical details get in and overbalance the story.

    Eh… story balance. I’ll talk about that another time. But I guess what I mean is that it isn’t work, just as (by and large) writing isn’t work. The necessary level of detail is pretty coarse with technical background unless I’m writing some kind of period piece (which I as yet haven’t), so I don’t spend a lot of time pondering over curious volumes of lore. I only find that my ability to produce worthwhile imagery can be temporarily paralyzed by the process, and everything I write turns sere and lifeless.

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