Storytelling is world building. Whether you are writing horror, science fiction, or romance, your readers must believe in the world you are creating. Often this requires us to develop characters who are in positions we have little to no personal experience with.
Thankfully, replicating things we haven’t already done is not impossible; it just takes practice. Below are three tips that will help you reproduce professions you’ve never been a part of and create believable character development.
3 Questions to Develop Characters You Don’t Understand
Mimicking voices can be a difficult thing, especially when the voice we are trying to produce has experience and a worldview radically different than our own. I worked in churches for fifteen years, so if you ask me to write a pastor’s voice then I’m going to have no problem. During that season of life, I spent a lot of time working with homeless addicts. Again, even though I’ve never suffered from addiction, because I’ve spent time in the community, I can mimic the voice of someone who has in a realistic way.
Recently, a project I was working on required me to write the voice of a therapist. My experience with therapists is close to none. I found reproducing this voice to be a difficult challenge. Thus, my research began.
I watched videos of therapy sessions and spoke with a few therapists. Unfortunately, for me listening to a voice isn’t enough. If I want to write a profession I don’t know, then I need to figure out what is going on behind the scenes. To do that, as I research, I ask these three questions:
1. What do they do when X happens?
Before beginning your research, it is important to narrow down the scenario you will be looking into. You don’t need to become a lawyer in order to write a court scene. You only need to know how a lawyer would behave in the particular court scene you are writing. If you know your scene before you begin your research, it will help you understand exactly what to look for.
This means when I come to my time with the professional, I have the scenario already designed. I need to know what the character I’m writing is going to be faced with before I dive into any research.
In my struggle to write the voice of a therapist, I narrowed my pursuit down to a specific type of therapy. I also knew how long the therapist had been working with the client and what particular problems the client was going to experience. This cut my research time in half. When I got a chance to speak with a therapist, I was able to set the scene for her and then ask multiple versions of the question, “So what would you say if you client said . . .”
Often when I use this approach, I find the subject matter expert expands my scene in dynamic and realistic ways.
2. How do they do it?
Often knowing what a professional will do isn’t enough detail. Every profession has behaviors and tactics that are so ingrained in the profession, the practitioners may not even know they are doing it. These actions are reflexive and based on long practiced muscle memory.
Ask a quarterback what he did to win the big game, and he will tell you he threw a touchdown pass. Ask him how he threw the pass, and he will explain how he read the defense, rolled to the left, set his feet, faked his head to the right to freeze the linebacker, and then threw to the receiver on the left.
To realistically replicate a moment, we need to pull the details of an action out of our subject matter experts.
In talking with my therapist, it wasn’t enough to ask her, “When your client said he was drinking, how did you respond?” I needed to follow up with, “What was your tone? What were you feeling? How did you ask the question? Is there a wrong way to ask that question?” These follow-ups dig deeper into the moment and help me recreate a realistic scene.
3. Why do they do it that way?
At some point in time, the thing that “everybody does” was new and innovative. There’s a reason it became commonplace. Why does a police officer make a suspect put his hands behind his head? Because before that was commonplace, encounters with suspects were messy.
Understanding the reason behind the action will help you get to the root of your scene. It will help you uncover the unconscious decisions happening in your professional’s mind.
When I was talking to my therapist, I caught her repeating back sentences I had already said. When I asked her why she did that, she gave me a lengthy explanation in the difference between asking a question and reflecting a statement. She talked about how the impact on a client is different and how asking questions can lead to false assumptions being made by both parties.
This was gold for my scene and allowed me to build a wonderful exchange between my characters.
Get Into Your Characters’ Heads
Even if you don’t have the time and resources to do research behind characters, pausing to ask what a character would do, how she would do it, and why she would do it that way will bring depth and realism to your scene. This character development will help capture your reader and pull them into your storytelling.
What tricks do you use to understand your characters? Let us know in the comments.