PhotobucketDo you research your novels to the point of obsession or do you not research at all? 

Historical novelists are research junkies. Coming-of-age novelists mostly rely on memory. The majority of fiction writers fall somewhere in between: They study just enough so that their settings are accurate and their characters’ occupations feel real. The rest is write what you know.

There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just that heavily researched novels can be lacking observation of the ordinary. Conversely, realistic novels are frequently are too ordinary to be fascinating.

To create high-impact it’s necessary to both observe people as they are and also discover through research that which readers could not possibly know about them and their world. Don’t you love learning new stuff as you read? Don’t you also love it when you totally recognize the characters with whom you’re spending time?

Research means not just getting the setting details right. It means getting the people right. Have you met a character who got bullet shot but wasn’t psychologically changed? Ever run across a protagonist who adapts to their handicap, special gift or paranormal ability with no trouble whatsoever? Those are failures of research.

Failure to observe people as they are results in overly familiar characters, actions and emotions; that is, stereotypes, predictable events and hackneyed prose. It’s a paradox. When you write what you think you should, it doesn’t feel wholly real. When you write from life, characters become quirky and unique. Their actions have a better shot at surprising.

Here are some things you can try, depending on your proclivity:

  • Are you a researcher? Think about your family. What kind of people are they? Who’s best? Who’s worst? Who’s the coolest? Who’s the nastiest? How? Use that.
  • Are you a researcher? Read the newspaper. What’s the big issue nowadays? What’s the equivalent issue in your story? Strengthen it.
  • Are you a researcher? What’s something ironic about life? Give that ironic observation to one of your characters. Better still, show it happening.
  • Are you an observer? What’s your main character’s occupation or identity? Interview someone who’s got that job or profile. Ask, what do outsiders not know? What’s something you feel that others don’t? What’s a specialist term, tool or measurement you use that others don’t? Use that stuff.
  • Are you an observer? Invent something for your story world that doesn’t exist there. Make it something big, notable, colorful, creepy, mysterious, famous, singular, or a source of shame or pride or wonder. Put it in your story.
  • Are you an observer? Pick a secondary character. Give that character an extraordinary ability or notorious past. Find a way for that to cause something to happen.

If you’re naturally an observer, undertake some research to make your story distinctively detailed and imaginatively rich. If you’re a dedicated researcher, get your nose out of the books and notice people. It’s what you uniquely observe about them that will make your characters real.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s dullhunk

About Donald Maass

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.