Research Your Characters

Common sense tells us that when writing a novel, especially your first, you should write about what you know. During my degree the one thing my lecturers drilled into my passive skull was that I needed to write from memory ‘as you can’t write about what you haven’t experienced’, or so they said.

I was 21 at the time and had been through two childish break ups. Both, in comparison to some horror stories, were mildly tame and I was yet to experience a period of sufficient emotional chaos that would make for a compelling read. As such I wrote in stark depth and detail about insignificant memories and found my texts to be, by all standards, pretty boring. I had no passion for it.

I realised that if my life on the page wasn’t appealing to me, then why would it be to anyone else?

This epiphany changed everything. I had to find an original story. I had to find someone else’s story and ignore the collective wisdom of my lecturers. I would need to tap into that person’s emotions and thought processes and write a novel on how they lived their life. No sooner had I begun my search than I accidentally found the subject through conversation with a friend.

A mothers story

He worked as a weekend carer for an 18 year old severely autistic male and as he told me more and more about his work, all I could think about was the young man’s mother. What must her life be like? What sacrifices had she made? How had her life changed since the birth of her son?

I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I soon realised I needed to tell her story, to put her voice out there, to see the World through her eyes. We hadn’t even met at this point but I knew that her story would be compelling.

First meeting

I had something of a picture in my mind as to what the mother and son would be like having researched the subject and watched documentaries on autism. After arranging to meet, however, I fretted over how to approach the matter. Would she welcome the inquisition? Would she acquiesce to me writing her story?

So when the Saturday morning of our meeting came I took time over my appearance so as to look older, wiser and more worthy of her attention. I believed that an hour long chat with the mother would confirm whether I should continue with my plans for the novel.

From the moment I knocked on the door and entered her home, saw her son, saw how the furnishings were arranged, saw how her nails were bitten to the root, observed how she drank her tea, how she spoke affectionately of her son and how she laughed and had warm creases from her smile, my plans were confirmed and she had to be the basis of my story.

From here the character was able to take shape. I learnt that she bit her fingernails because her son only slept three hours a night, that she softly stroked his arm when she trying to get him to listen, that she cried from frustration regularly and needed a break. Hearing all of this lay the foundations for the novel.

Advise be dammed!

Since then I ensure that I meet at length with the people I want characters to be based on for this is what drives the story over the edge and into a tangible reality.

Characterisation is something that lecturers and books will tell you come from the people you know, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go out and search for new people to get to know. I learnt, through spending hours in the spotlessly clean living room of a mother who became so grateful to have someone willing to listen to her, that everyone wants to be given a voice. The hard bit is being perceptive enough to notice what it is they’re really telling you.

Josh Aggars regularly writes about beach life, surfing, travel and more. His passion for surfing takes him to amazing places around the World and comes through in his regular articles as he explores all aspects of the sport. He supports his writing by selling animal flip flops and white flip flops online. Contact him for free articles for your blog or website at