The Post: Under the Pier – Research Part II: Human Character R&D

If you’re writing about Abraham Lincoln, conducting research is pretty straight-forward. If you have a real person, you can find books, movies, articles, people who knew them or experts to interview.

How do you research someone who doesn’t exist? With fiction characters, a lot of times you first decide what your story is about and who needs to be in it, then you start hunting. A lot of the work is really character “construction.” You have to build the characters and give them a life to know what facts you need. Some research might go on as you craft the character, but for me a lot of it came after I had some idea who the people were.

For starters, I had to decide just what kind of characters this story needed – superficial or deep. If this was a plot-driven adventure story, the main change and action would take place outside of the characters. That means the characters, even the main ones, remain the same from beginning to end. So they just need their framework – looks, personality, talents, some backstory. It’s the adventure, the plot action, that changes.

Under the Pier is a character-driven novel. The real energy, drive and purpose of the story take place inside the characters. They will grow or regress, change for the better or worse, due to their personality and circumstances. It’s not about the story actions or problems, but how they REACT to those story problems. So this meant my characters had to have depth, history, psychology, family, emotional wounds, unanswered questions.

Before I could research anything, I had to pin down some concrete things about each character. As much as I hated to have to start picking traits and family backgrounds because to choose things is to exclude others, it’s the only way to have a true-to-life character. Nobody in life can have blonde, red and brown hair (unless they dye it that way), three different colored eyes, be both young and old, and do EVERYTHING you ever dreamed of doing. Neither can your characters. So for both sides of the story, animal and human, I had to create a character, build their life, and then relate their life to others in the story. Robert Frost said “way leads on to way.” In writing, character leads on to character.

For the human side I wanted more than just birth date, physical description, or the meaning of their names – yes, I selected names that matched some aspect of their personality, but I also wanted sections for things like: strengths, weaknesses, goals, fears, driving needs. I took a lot of the information from my extensive journaling and wrote up personality profiles that gave each person a life story – traumas and triumphs, parentage or lack thereof, marital status, family dynamics, issues, problems, glaring flaws.

And by the way, for well-rounded, true-to-life characters, it’s important that the heroes be jerks about some things, and the villains be saints about others. NOBODY in real life is all good or bad. If you do that with your characters what you end up with is a stereotype or a caricature. At the very least, what you end up with is dull and boring. I read somewhere that when police interrogate suspects and witnesses, they expect some discrepancies between the various versions. That’s normal human nature. Everybody sees different things. When the stories match up too perfectly, the officers suspect the story being told isn’t real. The same is true with characterization. For example, General George S. Patton, Jr.’s grandson shared this observation about the man:

“My grandfather once commented that in his view a gentlemen should be able to curse for three minutes, non-stop, without repeating himself.”

At first glance one would never figure a gentleman would use such language, but flesh and blood human beings are full of inconsistencies. So create a character that “overall” is true to his nature, but do sprinkle in some unexpected traits. It makes for more real, interesting characters, and adds to the story action possibilities.

In any event, when writing my characters’ biographies, I started with the simple date of birth and description, then went on from there. For Rosa, the old woman who runs the diner in the human side of the story, the physical description went something like this:

She is relatively thin and wiry, but solid-boned, strong from years of physical work, with short whitish hair that used to be black. She’s about 105 pounds, in good condition overall from walking up and down stairs to her apartment behind the diner. Some arthritis and she is slowing down, but still is healthy and strong enough for being almost 80. She does have high blood pressure and sometimes forgets her meds.

That gave me enough of a picture in my mind – one of those strong old women who worked hard all their life, like many old women I grew up around in my very ethnic hometown. The thing about pinning down part of a person, though, is that it provides the bridge to the next piece of their puzzle. For example, just talking about her life of hard work suggests a need to explore areas like her background, level in society, personality, and attitudes toward life.

The beginnings of personality start to show in the additional information I put down:

She was born on October 29, 1929. If you know any history – this was Black Tuesday – the crash of the stock market and the beginning of The Great Depression. Unless she was born rich and lucky, which she wasn’t, this tells you how her life was going to go. To continue with my description, I decided her parents were immigrants from Italy, arriving just a year before her birth. Her mom died giving birth to her, something not uncommon for the time. Her father wasn’t around much, either looking for work, drunk or simply gone for long periods. She was shifted from family member to family member, often not a happy situation. She had to work from a young age and got out of her aunt’s house as soon as she could. She started working in a place called the Midway Diner, run by this handsome young guy named Frank Santelli, his grandmother, and his maternal uncle, Angelo Campelli. Uncle Angelo started the diner in the late 1890s with a horse-drawn cart and built it up from there. She fell in love with the diner and Frank, almost immediately. She married Frank by 18, revered Frank’s grandmother who took Rosa under her wing, and spent the rest of her life preserving the legacy of that diner, even after Frank’s death. She had 4 children – a daughter who died as an infant, and 3 sons, all still alive.

Okay. Right in this section, by picking the particulars of Rosa’s background, I’ve set up not only the rest of her life, but set up the bridges to the stories of her husband, his grandmother, his uncle, the diner’s history, her children, and raised questions like, why did she revere Frank’s grandmother, where was Frank’s mother and father, and what happened to Rosa’s infant daughter? Just by picking certain details, you create the thread to more questions, more characters, more life situations, conflicts, and relationships. You create….a real person with a real life. MOST importantly I’ve set up the question in the reader’s mind.. Why is all of this important with regards to Rosa’s relationship with Max, the story’s 12-year-old female protagonist? That’s the ultimate thing to remember. Not everything the biography will be part of the story, but if you make it part of the story, it better have a real good reason for being there, ie, how does it relate to the protagonist and the story’s main question?

Now. Research on Rosa. Well for one thing, I looked for anything I could find to “validate” her personality traits so a reader wouldn’t think I was overdoing things. I spotted an article in a Rhode Island newspaper about a woman in her 80s who would go out after snowstorms and not only shovel her driveway and sidewalk but those of her neighbors as well. She shrugged off the effort as “exercise” and viewed it matter-of-factly. She was home, her neighbors had to go to work, so she just took her time and shoveled everybody’s sidewalks. So, Rosa rings true to life. (If you want more of a feel for her, click here for the January 24th, 2008 post where I included a bit from the book describing Rosa)

Other people in the story. I know a bit about diners growing up in New England, and what the people were like who worked in them and ran them. I grew up in an ethnic town full of those early 1900s immigrants from Poland, Italy, Slovakia, Ireland etc. and knew the rules of the culture: hard work, no wimping out, not very much money, family and church were everything. Those people survived the Depression and World War II by helping each other even as they fought with each other and drove each other crazy. They didn’t mince words, but put it right on the table, usually in colorful language. For holes in my knowledge base, I researched books on diners, history, New England, did Google searches, and talked to people.

For example, Rosa’s son Vince, her eldest son, a war hero from Vietnam who is kind of a mystery character with a shrouded past, finally returns home after many years away. He works nights at the diner making doughnuts. I interviewed a number of people who worked in bakeries at night making doughnuts, so I’d get my details right.

For other characters in the book, I did the same thing – wrote the physical characteristics, figured out ages, started linking them to other characters in the book, and creating a “web” of relationships and lives. The more you added to the people and the web, the more possibilities for story action and conflict.

For example, the human protagonist, Max, lives with her grandmother, who also works at the diner. Max’s grandmother is dating Vince. For a number of reasons this both disgusts and scares Max. And Max views Vince’s shrouded past with tremendous fear and suspicion.

Just setting up that scenario, suggests questions like: “Why is Max living with her grandmother? How long has this gone on? What happened to her parents? What IS the deal with Vince’s shrouded past? Why does Max fear him and fear his dating her grandmother?

Then throw in a quirk. Here is Vince, a mysterious character Max fears, and a still strong and burly man. I gave him a small poodle as a pet. Not exactly what you would expect is it? And then there’s that pendant he has around his neck that he never takes off. Just what happened all those years he was away?

If I ran into problems or a block, I “talked to the characters.” You interview them, start a conversation, ask them a question about school, politics, the person they hate the most and why, anything. But having a conversation with a character is like talking to someone at work. The more they talk, the more you learn who they are. Most writing blocks come from either not knowing who your characters are and hence how they would react, or not knowing where the story is going. So…interview and journal, then go back to writing the biography.

The minute you put down one trait on a character then add a second, you set up a chain reaction that leads to more questions, decisions, more characters, more background, more dark secrets in closets, whatever. By the time I was through, I had two binders of character biographies. Some of the characters are background ones. For example, Rosa runs a ladies’ poker game in the corner booth of her diner – her booth – every Friday night. ALL the area ladies who run businesses along Main Street play, and even Sister Rita Luke from Our Lady of the Seas up the street shows up to win money for her outreach programs. Father Steve is the “chaplain” As one of the old ladies in the group puts it: “First we pray, then we play.” So I needed some cursory description of who the ladies were and what stores they ran.

Once you’ve got the real people, the research part is easy. For medical problems I did Google searches, hunted through medical textbooks, talked to an ER physician, and even pulled details from the book, The Perfect Storm. For a legal issue involving Max, I talked to a lawyer. For emotional problems, again, there was Google, psychology books, and a psychologist. I researched Catholic history, and ethnic superstitions, both very big themes in that culture. I researched the fishing industry and what kinds of research post-doctoral students were doing in Rhode Island for either universities, the military or the environment. And yes, I got books on the meanings of names, so I could accurately name my characters, not just pick something out of a hat. In the course of the research, I looked for interesting tidbits or colorful facts that I could incorporate to give my characters the “authority” of that life.

Finally, I looked for things to use as character tags. Character tags allow us to quickly identify the character, tell us something about their deeper personality, and raise more questions for the reader to answer. Vince walks a poodle and wears a mysterious pendant. Rosa has her certain superstitions, Max walks around in the middle of the summer wearing a paint-stained oversized flannel shirt. Almost immediately, we associate certain things with certain people, then begin our quest to find out “why?”

Up Next: Under the Pier: Research – Animal Character R&D

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