A Personal Journey Disguised as “Doing Research” IV: The Human Experience

This is the last post in our series on turning research into joy. (At least I hope you’re getting more of a kick out of research than you ever have before!) Here’s your handy-dandy links to the first three posts:

Today we’re going to talk about a side of research you might not have even thought about before: Delving deep into the human experience. It’s been said you should never judge anyone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. I’ll add: Neither should you attempt to write a character until you’ve researched the path they walk on.

It’s Never Okay to Fake Stuff

So, you have this character, and he’s an FBI agent (just for instance). You’ve never been an FBI agent. So what do you do? You research.

Everybody knows that.

But how about this?

You have this character, and he lost his leg in a car crash. You’ve never lost your leg. Heck, you’ve never even been in a car crash. So what do you do?

I have no doubt you already planned to research all the technicalities. The EMTs, the ER, the MRI, and all the other medical acronyms. Before you know it, your fictional doctor is spouting impressive terminology all over the page, and you can be right proud of yourself.

But what’s it really like  to lose a leg? I mean, besides the significant pain, physical setback, and relearning involved. How is your character likely to feel about the loss itself? The ordeal? The recovery? Life with a removable plastic appendage? Activities he may not be able to do anymore? How are you supposed to put any of this down on paper? You’ve never lost a leg before. So what do you do?

Why, you make stuff up, of course!

Um … wrong.

But sometimes that’s what authors do. We rely 100% on our imagination. We try to project ourselves into an experience we’ve never had before. But I found out for myself that imagination sometimes falls far short of reality–and can result in a fake character.

What Got Me Started on This in the First Place

Have you ever notice how, in TV shows, the hero is gunned down one week and is up and running around a few episodes later as if nothing ever happened? I used to write like that, too. Once the climax was over, everything was pretty much hunky-dory.

One of my major characters in my WIP Mailboat called me on that point. He’s a gunshot wound survivor. He told me one day, months after the incident and his “full recovery,” that he still hurt. Frequently.

Wondering if such a phenomenon were possible–since my character indicated it had significant bearing on the story line–I did some research. To my surprise, I found out that chronic pain is common  for survivors of gunshot wounds.

I learned about a lot of other things, too. Flashbacks. Insomnia. A fear of the place where the incident happened. Depression. Social withdrawal. All of these, potential long-term complications of surviving a shooting.

I learned things about my character I never would have known without research. And the more I learned, the more I understood what it was really like to be  this character. To walk a mile in his shoes. Post-research, I found myself in an infinitely better position to write this character with feeling and authenticity.

The Emotional Cost of Living

This incident with my character from Mailboat  fed into a gradually-developing concept I now call the emotional cost of living. We’ve all faced our own personal trials. Maybe it was a physical setback, like in my above examples. Maybe it was a broken relationship–or a series of broken relationships. Maybe it was an addiction. Maybe it was abuse. Maybe it was the horror of war. Maybe it was the loss of a loved one.

We live in a fallen world, and none of us have escaped unscathed.

As writers, we love to put our characters through the wringer. We love the drama and the climax. That’s part of the reason we read stories, after all. But it eventually dawned on me that there are real people in the world who have actually experienced the conflicts I write about. And who have lived with the scars for years afterwards.

Using the same example of gun violence, there are hundreds of thousands of people in the United States who have survived gunshot wounds. If I “fake” my character’s experience, I make light of an event which was probably the watershed moment of someone’s life. I would much rather take the time to understand their true stories, so as to lend greater depth and authenticity to my fictional stories.

It’s Pretty Easy

Some of the facts I’ve had to dig up for novels have been staggeringly elusive. By contrast, researching a character’s emotional cost of living can be mindlessly easy. From “What’s it like growing up in foster care?” to “What’s it like being the parent of a felon?” the answers are usually just a few clicks or page turns away. Here are a few ways you can become better acquainted with your character’s emotional cost of living:

  • Find a support group. Support groups exist for virtually every dilemma known to man, and they usually have websites with lots of literature.
  • Look up memoirs of people who have gone through what you’re writing about.
  • Browse the library or bookstore for self-help books on your topic.
  • Find people who are willing to talk about their experiences and have a conversation with them. (Yes, you’ll be nervous–but not as nervous as the interviewee, talking with a real, live novelist.)

The effort you put into understanding another human’s experiences can pay back huge dividends in your ability to write an authentic story.

Homework Assignment

This one will take me but a few words to write, but may keep you busy for the next several weeks. Or months.

  • Look over your character’s timeline and identify the key hardships of his life. Now get online or go to your library and start reading up on real people who have walked that same path.

Everyone’s experiences and reactions are a little bit different, but you should find plenty of inspiration to guide you in understanding how a particular event affected your  character. Once you start making fascinating new discoveries, please share! We’d love to hear from you in the comments.


And thus ends our clinic on the joys of research. If you already loved research, I hope you love it even more. If you hated it, I hope I’ve given you reasons to tolerate it!

Our topic for June is going to be how to let your characters write your story for you. (Sort of.) The classes run every Wednesday. You’re perfectly welcome to subscribe so you don’t miss anything! Hope to see you there.

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