Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Importance of Research

Charles Manson. Sorry about the creepy image. It will prove a point later on, I promise.

I've been learning the lesson of what good research can mean for a story. Not just mediocre okay-I-did-some-scooping-research. But GOOD, in-depth research.

In the beginning years I naively thought that a trip to Wikipedia would be sufficient for all my research needs. Years later as I'm doing final edits on a certain project I decided to dig deeper. Get to the real juicy stuff. And you know what?


Yes, I did. Not that Wiki isn't great and all, but I saw several shades of the people I was researching for, other points of view that really rounded them out for me and gave me something more to add to the kaleidoscope that is them.  Added depth. And in the meantime there was this great side effect of me getting smarter, too.

It opened up another idea for me, too. Not just getting the facts straight in my novel, but also realizing all the different ways I can see a character. It affected the way they spoke to each other, how they perceived different situations, how it changed their daily routine/focus or what they did in their down time or when they were stressed. You know, a more psychoanalysis of them.

You might think that one could get carried away with this. Okay, you could. Maybe. But don't despair, my brain did not explode. I got what I needed, and then kept editing. Sometimes I would go on stints. Edit. Research. Edit. Research something new. Edit. Research an even newer topic. In this way I was getting what I needed and not tiring my brain and also not getting out of the habit of editing either.

Here's an example of what I had in the works:

In my story DEAD LIBRARY, my MC, Christian Lewis is a military brat. In the beginning I had him totally obsess about this girl, a girl that he not only likes, but also appears in his dreams in rather realistic ways (don't worry, nothing gross here). Well, my critters thought he sounded like a stalker and needed more than her and the need to fit in to round him out as an individual. So, I gave him a hobby of sorts. A goal besides that of the one that will pop up and become the main story theme. He now wants to be a Navy SEAL when he's old enough. Well, more than a need. He's driven. It's what will get him away from his controlling dad, yet keep his dad happy (since he's also in the military and loves the idea of 'being tough').

So, now that I have this point of view for my character I couldn't really leave things up to my limited knowledge of Navy SEAL life to fill in the blanks. I needed to research. A person like Christian would have really researched Navy SEAL life to know what to expect or if he even wanted to do it. Whether by choice or because his Dad pushed it on him. I needed to know what Christian Lewis knows. What would be expected of him? How should he prepare? What does he know already? Does he have an 'in'?

These things really fleshed out Christian in a way that he'd never been before. He wasn't just a shadow of myself anymore (like most writer's characters are). He's someone separate from me, and yet relatable. And not only that, but I chose a hobby that can help him later on in the story (ie. He will be better prepared to strategize  how to take out his enemy when the time comes).

Another character, is Erick. AKA Christian's new best friend. He's  a genius. I'm not implying that he's just smart, he's actually a child prodigy. And not only that, but he realized this at a young age and doesn't want his parents to know, so he won't become one of those scrutinized wunderkind on television. He wants to blend in--not be noticed--so that he can go on creating inventions he can sell to the highest bidder (a buyer that won't care who he is or how old he is).

Anyway, in the beginning I actually didn't do any research on Erick's character. Because I couldn't find anything that would help at the time. Well, I got smart and realized a better way of looking. Man you wouldn't believe all the YouTube videos out there! Maybe there's still a better way, but that's where I started. This led me to other websites where I found out all about modern day prodigies. This changed a few things about this character, but mostly confirmed things that I already believed. (Hopefully I have him accurate!). Most importantly, I got a look into the lives of someone like Erick. They are normal kids in their way, have the same needs, but they just know a whole bunch of awesome stuff! Again, I really enjoyed this research!

One more character to discuss then I promise I'll stop =). THE VILLAIN!

This is one that I really struggled with for several years. I think I got a good grip on the bad guy character a while back, but I thought, what the heck, let's do some more deepening with the old rapscallion. So, back to YouTube I went. This time to news stories. I love that these stories are so readily available!

So, who do you research for your villain's? Well, I went straight to the worst possible criminals of our modern day. Serial killers. Ted Bundy and Charles Manson to name two. Did you know that Ted Bundy was an average guy from a non-obvious background?? He was almost a direct duplicate of my own husband! (I'm speaking looks description and line of work =). Charles Manson (maybe you know all these stories), was a real gold mine for insight into an evil psyche. There were extensive interviews with him. Man, this guy was obviously possessed, and to this day does not regret a single thing he did. And yet you feel sorry for the guy. (Sort of). Man was his life hard!

This is what I'm talking about, though. MAKE THE VILLAIN RELATABLE. I've said this before, and maybe I've even mentioned the advice I've heard from other authors, that you start with two characters--the good guy and the bad guy--and then switch rolls and see what happens. See if they're really fleshed out and have distinct points of view that make them choose to be the way that they are. They both have to draw you in. You have to like them, even. Evil or not, they're still your babies. Am I right?

But back to Manson. This guy had a plan. He created a whole routine to desensitize his so-called family members. He'd go through rituals with them each and every day. Fulfilling their need of family connection, giving them the attention they needed, the 'love', and in turn building himself up in their estimation. He was the beginning and the end to them. He'd then erase their idea of right and wrong. Delete their brain knowledge (put them on drugs so this was much easier), and then download his own ideas. (This is how Satan works, btw, for all you religists out there).

And once he did that?

He retrained them. Turned them into killing machines. And JUSTIFIED their actions.

Of course there was a reason people! He had a goal. Just like good people, bad people have goals, too. And to them they are GOOD goals.

Yes. Nuts. But, too true.

So, creepy as it was to watch parts of this--very disturbing--it was also educational and great fodder for my own villain.

Now with my research underway and almost complete, I have juicier details to make my world a real world. And ways to really hit home with readers of all varieties.

Now let's hear from you. What has helped you create that super-fantastic-awesome character? Do you have a favorite way to research?

Let me know!

And thanks again for dropping by!

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