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.

Published in: on May 26, 2008 at 11:45 am  Comments (4)  
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  1. I think her answer was telling, especially this sentence: “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.” It’s almost like being an actor. When we’re writing, we “feel” the reactions of these other people who let us know who they are as we bring them to the page. Of course, it isn’t the same for all fiction writers, but that’s what it’s like for me.

    Research speaks of “things” to me, not generally the character of people. I suspect if I were writing a serial killer character, I might read a book on FBI profiling, etc. (which I have, but haven’t written a book about one).


  2. I think a balance is probably good. An emotional person (or character) will react one way to a given situation. A person lacking emotion will react far differently. Think of friends or family members and how they might react. A disillusioned war veteran won’t respond with the emotion that a drama-laden teenager might. Could we imagine how they might act? Yes, probably.

    One of the things I’ve never done well with characters is to actually compare them to people I know and/or interact with. I talked about it on my own blog. I encouraged readers to think about their favorite characters and then compare them to their friends.

    For all those who watch the TV show Lost, I think it’s an excellent example of good characters, because the characters resemble those we’ve interacted with.

    The goal is to replicate real life. If you need to research, then I think research makes sense. If you don’t, don’t. 🙂


  3. When you’re dealing with emotions, I think we do research every day, just by interacting with different people and personalities around us. I wouldn’t feel the need to research that.

    If I came up with a character who was an expert in origami or needed to know the precise workings of a Black Hawk helicopter, you’d better believe I’d be heading to the library, though (or the 21st century’s version of the library, Wikipedia).


  4. Nicole, I agree that writing is a whole lot like acting. When I read Brandilyn Collings’ book Getting into Character I saw this, but the longer I write, the more I understand it.

    I think researching character would be good if it was so foreign you couldn’t find a reasonable experience to give you insight. For example, Brandilyn speaks of getting into the mind of a serial killer by tapping into how she feels when she’s out to kill a spider or some such thing. Not perfect, maybe not complete, but it would give you a starting place, I think—a set of emotions to identify with, perhaps.

    So while I’ve never been in jail; have I ever felt jailed? I’ve never been mugged; have I ever felt victimized?

    It’s a matter of making the emotions for something that would be minor come to the front and take their place in something major.

    And, yes, J, I do think there needs to be consideration that characters may vent or repress emotions—probably somewhere in between. It’s this kind of “knowing your character” I had to discover. When I first started learning about true character development, I thought this came by me making a list of his favorite foods and what kind of car he drives. It’s much more about why he drives a Porsche and wants steak than it is about those choices.

    Mark, I agree with you also. The research a writer really needs to do is to study the people around us.

    Thanks for these insightful comments, all.



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