How to research your characters

This content has been archived. It may no longer be accurate or relevant.

From Nathan Bransford:

When I was writing the first draft of my novel, somewhere in the middle of a chapter I ground to a complete halt. For weeks I’d been riding the high of pounding the keyboard in a glorious rush, but now I was out of material. I had no idea what happened next. 

I sulked. I screamed. I ate too much chocolate. I considered a new career opening a chocolate shop where I could sample the wares. I did everything except write, because whenever I tried all I got was more silence. 

The epiphany came days late. I was stuck because I didn’t know my characters well enough. And because I didn’t know my characters, I didn’t know what they would do next. 

By day, I make my living as a nonfiction writer. When I get stuck, the answer is easy: I don’t know enough about the subject. The answer is to do your research.

Even if you’re writing fiction and you’re literally making up your material, it turns out the answer is the same: do your research.

But how do you research imaginary people? Pretty much the same way you’d research real people and situations. 

Conduct interviews

My favorite way to conduct research is to interview people. You don’t have to find someone who is exactly the same as your character (and that may even be impossible). However, search for people in similar circumstances whether it’s emotional states, careers, life situations etc. or experts who may be able to provide insight into your character’s setting. And for more tips on how to conduct an interview, check out my previous post on how to interview.

Start with background information

I’m writing a book inspired loosely by my partner’s childhood in Zimbabwe. I had no idea how to plot it and what should happen. So, to start with, I spent hours asking him about his childhood. Then I talked to his family and his friends and their friends. 

I was upfront about what I was doing and I think this helped people open up because they didn’t worry that I was going to use their names. Once I’d conducted several hours of interviews, I took a step back, read through the interviews and was able to put together the loose outline of a plot.  

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford