Character Research


Mystery writer Elizabeth George, author of the best-selling Thomas Lynley series, is in Southern California promoting her new release, Careless in Red. Consequently, our local paper carried an interview with her. One of the questions had to do with her research, but this one was a bit of a surprise.

Did you do any research into grief?

Apparently, from what I gathered in the rest of the interview, one of the main characters died in a previous book. (I only know the Thomas Lynley series through the PBS adaptations aired on Mystery, but I’m leaning toward making a visit to my local library SOON! 😉 ) So, the question wasn’t out of place.

It actually brought to mind what I believe is a sort of trendy approach to creating characters that a number of authors are talking about. I’m referring to the use of psychological charts and personality tests to properly depict a character.

Here’s George’s response to the grief-research question:

No. One of the reasons that they call it creative writing is that the writer should be able to project herself into the lives and experiences of characters totally unlike herself, and that’s what I’ve tried to do all along. When I create characters and a situation, what I’m looking for are basic truths of what they’re experiencing. I ask at the end, “Is it honest? Is it true? Is it real?” If is is those things to me, I’n satisfied. I didn’t do any research into grief at all. I would have probably been constrained by that.
– Elizabeth George, Whittier Daily News, May 25, 2008
emphasis added

As I was reading her answer, I couldn’t help wondering about “research.” I mean, isn’t one form of research for the writer to observe people? But is observation of others of greater merit than reading, studying what others have observed?

And by “projecting herself into the lives and experiences of characters totally unlike herself,” is George attributing to them her own reactions, not their own? Or is she identifying the threads of commonality, the reactions that make her and them alike?

When I got to the “constraining line,” something jumped inside me. Oh, yeah. Constraining and formulaic. Boxed. As if every person will “do grief” exactly the same way.

And yet there are commonalities. Truths.

Is this because humans have been made in the image of God? Our flaws are our own; our Humanity is from God.

The key component, I think, is that we are all shaken and stirred in different ways, which gives us each an individual flavor.

So, I’m not a big fan of charts and tests that pigeon-hole people. But I also don’t want every character I write to react like I do. So research? I think it’s necessary, but I prefer the first hand kind, the stuff that sends me to the primary source—people. It’s an area I need to sharpen.

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Published in: on May 26, 2008 at 11:45 am  Comments (4)  
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