What Should You Do If Your Character Research Is Not up to the Mark?

Jim has a novel coming up about a computer professional lost in the woods with a pilot. Jim is neither a computer professional nor a pilot. In order to successfully describe these people in his story, Jim has to do a lot of research on computer technologies and flying an aircraft––In order to make them believable. However, no matter how well he does his research, he cannot get everything right.

There are always things that only computer professionals know. For instance, an actual computer professional would use the shortcut Ctrl + C to copy a portion of text from a text editor. A novelist like Jim may not know about this and may make his computer specialist character use menu item, Edit->Copy for even the simplest copy task. This will look ridiculous to a computer professional.

Similar to that, we don’t know anything about flying an aircraft. If we have a pilot as a character, we still have to write about his profession, unless the story doesn’t anywhere deal with his profession. Dealing with character professions is a difficult task for most writers.

Researching for these things is inevitable and extremely painful. Without proper research, the novel will look uninteresting to a normal reader and ludicrous to a professional.

One Thing You Should Know

Even though there may be flaws in your character’s research, nobody outside of that profession really cares. So, you still have a good audience for your story. If you have a rocket scientist as a character and the ostentatious stuff you write is total bluff, nobody really cares. For one thing, the people who really can catch your bluff, the rocket scientists themselves, are so few in number that any of them reading your novel is a remote chance. Another, most of the rocket scientists are not fond of fiction.

Normal people probably would believe what you write. So, you are safe 99 per cent of the time. This doesn’t however mean that you can afford to make mistakes. You have to do your part of the research. You have to try to make your stories flawless. The rest is out of your power.

How to Make Characters More Believable?

Fear of research can be a thing that keeps you from writing at all. People feel that no matter how well they do the research, they will not be able to craft a very good character in their stories. Though this is not true, it is extremely difficult to create flawless characters. But there is a workaround for this problem that many writers use—a trick. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many successful stories as there are now.

This trick will help you write your stories without doing much research at all. Learn only the basics of a profession and hide more intricate things appropriately with narrative elements, which you can call gimmicks. For instance:

Rachel looked keenly on John’s face and cheeks, while Dr Clay injected him the tetracycline.

In this sentence, we are effectively hiding the process of injecting a tetracycline with Rachel’s "keen look on the face and cheeks of John". We don’t know how exactly Dr Clay injects. So, we magnify what another character in the scene does to hide the process of injecting a medicine. An inept writer would have described this in a different way:

Dr Clay filled out the tetracycline from the slender jar to the syringe. Then he gloved his hands. He tilted John’s body upside down and let a few drops of the injection squirt out. Then he leaned forward and injected tetracycline over the buttocks muscle, one inch into the flesh.

This inept piece of writing blindly describes a doctor’s procedure of injecting a medicine, without invoking any emotion whatever in the minds of the readers. The paragraph is too big with unnecessary information, and it requires too much of research. You have to know the type of bottle in which the injection is kept, the part of body where exactly the needle will go, the name of the butt muscle, how much of the needle pierces, etc.

Without this information, this piece of junk is just junk. Doctors will scoff at this paragraph: first, it is not a slender jar, from which you fill tetracycline, second, buttocks muscle should have a name, and it is not a muscle, but a vein in which you inject. Also, you don’t know if a doctor wears gloves before injecting. Frankly, I don’t know any of these things. Avoid inept descriptions like this.

Here the example of another good narration:

While Jones was still working on the computer, trying to get access to the Internet, Rachel was surveying the deep canopy that they were occupying. Her eyes traveled through the dense treetops, as if searching for something and easily got lost in some thoughts, when Jones cried out, “I got it! Look, Rachel.”

An inept writer, who is also not an expert in computers, would have hopelessly described the entire process of getting access to the Internet. That would not only look ludicrous to a computer expert, but also distracting to even an average reader. Here also, Rachel comes to our rescue with her brilliantly visual, emotionally engaging actions.

So, make sure you get your basics right. That is enough research for a novel. Everything else should be crafted with the appropriate actions of the characters. You can hide whatever someone does with another character’s timely interaction. Just lessen the effect of what you don’t know––generalize them. And describe well what you do know.

Advantages

There are a number of advantages to this kind of narration.

1. Your normal readers will not be distracted. Too much of technical and subject-specific information is a total distraction to most. Showing your readers the normal actions of your characters rather than the professional actions such as gearing up an aircraft or setting up and switching on a ham radio will work toward alienating them only.

2. You will escape scoffers among the professionals pretty well. While I don’t scoff computer blunders I see on films, they readily prove to be a disappointment to me. I may stop watching films and reading novels with such blunders.

3. Research is much reduced. Haven’t you seen in the example above how much less you have to know to write in this way?

4. You will have space for expansion of your characters. In the earlier example, I described Rachel’s looking keenly on the face of John without describing the doctor’s injecting. This is a space for improving the character of Rachel. It can be a good input, if at a later stage we have to develop an intimate relationship between Rachel and John.

Conclusion

Research is very important for novels and short stories. Workaround described in this post should be used only when you don’t have enough information of a professional job. When you do have it, you can easily describe it. However, make sure you don’t exaggerate this making it too distracting. It’s what amateurs do.

Related Entries:

Character Development Tips
How to Fight Writer's Block?
Characters With Emotional Viewpoint

Copyright © Lenin Nair 2008

2 Opinions:

  1. Thanks for this post. It's excellent and very informative to me. I have a chapter that's loaded with technical info. Since I know exactly what I'm talking about in that chapter (http://loveandromance-tashabud.blogspot.com/2008/05/8-massage.html), should I leave them in, or should I rewrite the chapter so that the technical info will not be so distracting to the story?

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  2. Indeed, writing with too much technical stuff is going only to distract your readers. So my advice is to retain what is necessary, and leave out anything that is not.

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