Researching characters

Joe’s Post #120 

William "Wild Bill" Donovan, future head of CIA

William “Wild Bill” Donovan, future head of CIA

Researching characters? Say what?

Has anyone ever done research to help create a character?

Well, that’s what I’m doing. It’s because I’m writing a historical thriller. It’s because a character is built from their past. It’s because of what has happened to them,shapes them. Defines them.

It’s how they see the world. All plot flows from their experiences, training, and personality. All descriptions are seen through their eyes, which has seen so many things before. It’s how they deal with relationships, with adversity, with success or failure.

So how can research help?

Well, once again, I’m just me. But once I have an idea of a character, I need to know their past. For this story, I looked at the Great War and how it affected people. I remember talking to my great-uncle about his experiences. I was 10 and he was, gosh, old, I guess. Really old. He got a funny look on his face when I asked him about it. Like he wasn’t there suddenly.

I thought old age. But he came back and told me a horrific story of being gassed. He told the story with intensity, like it mattered that I know it, like it was yesterday, like it still terrified him. When he was done, he was exhausted, his eyes were wet, and he said, “No one should ever have to experience war.”

That war changed him in a very deep way.

Know this fellow? He was deeply affected by WW1.

Know this fellow? He was deeply affected by WW1.

So for this story, I began to read more about that war to end all wars. I knew I wanted my character to suffer. I wanted that war to transform him. So how could I make a horrific, truly horrific war even worse? What role could he have played in the war? How could he have been scared physically, emotionally?

I came up with a flamerthrower carrier. A man who burned other men alive. A man who every German machine gunner tried to kill over all others. How would THAT affect him?

Or, how would he deal with gas or drowning in the water-filled shell holes? Wait, water-filled, what if he couldn’t swim? What if he fell in with a 50lb tank of gasoline on his back and began to sink in the watery mud, struggling, clawing, tearing at the sides of the hole, sinking deeper, going under once, fighting for breath, going under, twice, terrified…

And who could save him who would later reappear in his life? Or would he save himself? Would he learn he could count on people or learn there was only himself?

But no, dammit, the US army didn’t use flamethrowers. History was against me, this time. Next week I’ll talk a bit about fact vs fiction, but for now, dammit, no flamethrowers.

So what if I replace the flamethrower with a wounded friend he was carrying? Hmmm.

Would his parents have been interned?

Would his parents have been interned?

On to other parts of his life. What defined him as a child? As a young adult? Growing up in Chicago, being the son of emigrant?  How could I make his life tougher? How could I make it a vital part of who he became? What if he grew up in a poor area, an Irish area, where there were only 2 choices in life, gangs or cops? And what if both were equally bad?

Then what would motivate him to go to war? What posters would inspire him? What speeches? What articles read in the newspaper? Ah, wait, newspapers, could he read? Did he go to school or did he have to help his father? What if his father was a blue collar worker through and through, but wanted more for his son and pushed him to read? Would that make his closer to the Irish boys? Or more of an outcast, quoting Byron or Marx or Dickens?

Public Service Announcement, Chicago, 1919

Public Service Announcement, Chicago, 1919

Then, when he got back, how could I make his life worse, still? What if the great flu pandemic killed off his wife, his family? We forget that 50-100 million people died. 50 million people!!! Wouldn’t that affect him?

And what would he vow when he got back home, later than the rest, having missed the parades, his lungs scared by gas? What would he believe in? What would he not? What if he vowed he would never kill again, no wait, that doesn’t quite work, so what if he vowed to save people, save as many as he killed? Would he become a gangster? No, probably not. A cop?

Why not? The last honest man in Chicago? A bull fired with determination to help people, even the dead. Maybe, ESPECIALLY the dead.

Then, how would he find the roaring twenties? How would he get through the Great Depression? How would he deal with Prohibition and the massive corruption it created? How would he deal with raising his sister, the only member of his family to have survived the pandemic? What if she became his world, his anchor?

Brücke Nijmwegen, Sicherung durch holländische SoldatenThen what would happen if she left and got in trouble? What if she sent a message from Holland in 1940 saying she needed his help? And what if he arrived too late to save her?

All of this has to be based on history, HIS history – as influenced by the world around him or the people in it.

This all begins with research. I want to read about the letters they wrote home. I want to read about the details of the battle. I want to read the newspapers of the time. I want to find out if mail got to the front lines (spoiler, it did!). I want to know what they wore, the conflicts between race and religion and social status. EVERYTHING!

All so I can know the world that shaped my character(s).

I love finding this stuff out, I really do, but there’s a trap, isn’t there?

I’m not writing a history book.

At some point, I need to get my character onto the page and torture him some more.


Best Show Last Week – Check out “Chicago PD”.  A fast-paced and driven cop drama.

Book That I’m Reading At the Moment – Tamar – Oh I have some things to say about this one!

Outlines Done – 0

Pages written on New Book  0

# Turkeys eaten – 1 but somehow I forgot the stuffing!!!!!!!!!!!

# of new friends made on Twitter – 7 (hmmm, have I neglected twitter? She is such a needy thing, she is.)

# books ordered for research – 0 (But I need to look into Chicago between wars and find me a good WW1 book.)

Health – Better.

Best Thing Last Week – Finding a book about Paris in 1938, a best-selling novel by Alan Furst called Mission to Paris. Who says WW2 books can’t sell?

Worst Thing – Taking classes for the first time in 20 years. Ever had that nightmare about being in class and knowing nothing? Well, that was my experience, but at least I had pants on (unlike my dreams).

How was everyone else’s week?


4 thoughts on “Researching characters

  1. You’ve just presented the perfect introduction for a writer’s workshop on “Building Your Character.” Thought provoking, and something I will keep in mind as I continue to re-work and edit. Thank you for sharing

  2. My “education” (quotes being the only way to connote sarcasm and/or bitterness) trained me to respond to a difficult question, (or barrage thereof) with a more a difficult counter-question. If, in the ostensible search for “truth,” (😝) the counter-question couldn’t be answered, you prevailed, at least tactically. SO, what do you do if there is no information on the daily lives of people in your story, perhaps because your story is set in ancient and/or mythical times? Tactically (again), if the other person pauses (sign of a good counter-question), you note, in passing, his most likely answer as if it were something that everyone knew was an inadequate response, such as “Tolkien created an entire world as the backdrop for his ring trilogy.” Because I’m retired, I can admit to hoping that you, or a follower of 5×5, might come up with one or more ideas that might be helpful (the commonweal not being a priority among my former colleagues).

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