Beyond Sociology

In my practice, I have a preliminary phase in which I read a manuscript and then give an author overall comments that form the groundplan for the projected edit. Among the most common of these remarks is advice to add more personal material about the lead character. That’s what publishers (and readers) want: an engaging protagonist. 

What I frequently get back is a series of comments about what socioeconomic forces the character is facing, rather than thoughts and viewpoints coming from within the character. This usually occurs when an author feels his personal experiences cannot inform the inner life of a character. 

Let’s say the heroine is a hard-bitten Detroit detective. Rather than personal experiences within her bleak upbringing, I find descriptions that read like research. I learn more about Detroit in the years leading up to its bankruptcy than I do about Crystal’s sometimes dangerous evening runs home from the corner grocery store.

Many authors do not have harrowing backgrounds. That does not, however, preclude them from imagining what the character that interests them must be like. The secret in creating identity is not magic. It’s the hard work of facing yourself. Anybody can read and copy down research. Yet even diligent researching will only yield a stack of notes. You then have to pick out one person within that milieu and imagine you are him. 

Think about the circumstances. Now insert yourself. Have you ever been on a lonely city street alone, late at night? What did it feel like? Did you find yourself hyper-vigilant? Did you check behind your back every few seconds, just in case? Did you feel prickles dancing on your shoulders? In other words, if you are willing to do the work of identifying with your lead character, you will either remember or you will seek out experiences that can fill him up from the inside. 

Research provides only the surroundings in which action is situated. Your character is not one of hundreds; she is the only one you’re writing about. So she’d better be you, to a very large extent, or the personal details are going to feel distant to the reader. 

Exercise: One large difference between your notes and a book you’re researching may be the examples within the book. Nonfiction books are usually filled with individual examples that illustrate the thematic points. Examine the personal details from those examples. Do the real-life stories give you any good ideas? 

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