Top 10 Tips to Research Characters for a Fictional Story
by Samantha Stone

You've got your story idea and you're ready to launch into writing. All you need now is your set of characters to act out all those magnificent scenes in your outline, right?

Great. Now create your actors for those roles and let the action happen. Even plot-based stories need good characters, so populate your story carefully. The wrong characters in a role will become obvious and can make your story awkward.

How to avoid a massive character rewrite? Keep these 10 tips in mind when researching characters to play your storyline.

1. Who Do You Need?

Different genres require different character sets, such as police procedurals needing criminals, victims, authorities, and so on. List your story's needed characters.

2. Basics

Age and gender are usually first in this, but you might have a vague idea of other physical aspects of your characters.

3. Getting Physical

Be specific, but timeless. Terms like hot and cool are open to interpretation. If you describe a heroine as having a rather lopsided but infectious smile and a quick giggle, some readers will like her, others will not. Remember that hot and cool factors are subjective. Trends change. The hot guy in the skinny jeans might not be such a heartthrob when fashions change; same thing with old favorites like a chiseled chin. Add in physical clues, too. Perhaps your crime novel's murderer drags his left foot.

4. The Joy of Naming

Naming characters can be great fun, but resist creating characters just to name them. Make only as many characters as your story needs. Names can reflect nationality, family history, even social standing. Original names can help distinguish characters by using similar or remote sounds. Maybe a fantasy country ends all female names with a vowel sound, or uses no hard g or c, or has no l.

5. Dialogue

A character's dialogue can help reflect background, education, and nationality. Listen to dialects common for your story location, such as drawls, coastal dialects, heavy accents, and tonality. Flavor a character's speaking manner. Stay away from precise phonetic spellings. Characters should speak differently, using word choice, sentence length, and speaking speed.

6. Pasts, Histories, Education

Make a short timeline of each main character's history to help you develop who they are in your story and why they do what they do. Consider how education or the lack thereof and relationships can influence actions.

7. Nuisances

Use idiosyncrasies to show depth and individuality; this is especially helpful in clue-heavy genres like suspense, mystery, and crime stories. Your character's worldview and outlook shape who they are. Is your character upbeat? Depressed? Cynical?

8. Use Change

Discover who your character is at the beginning and then make benchmarks throughout the plot on how they change. Who and what your character is will most likely change, so the personality qualities and outlook may also change – for better or worse. This internal research into the character that happens as you develop them, but establish who your characters are at the onset.

9. People Watching

Watch people in real life. Go to a mall, a restaurant, a religious service, grocery stores – any place you can observe how people behave. Watch people in pairs, alone, and with families. Observe how they react to the same incident; a baby cries in a restaurant – what happens? Looks of disdain? Annoyance? Fondness? Reminiscence? Relief that the baby is not theirs? Watch the dynamics between young and old, couples, teens, families, business associates.

10. Populating Your Story

Unless you're writing a very exclusive or experimental type of story, you'll probably have many types of characters. Use them where they fit – or don't; maybe that's one of the obstacles in your storyline. A character who doesn't belong where you've put them can also add tension. Long before Yentl, Mulan, and Arya, hidden-gender characters have shown these out-of-place obstacles can be fascinating.

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