Research Your Characters Before You Write: Advice from David McCullough

by Matilda Butler on August 23, 2010

catnav-alchemy-activePost #21 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Writing about Characters

Creating believable characters is vital to every writer. If you are writing memoir, you might think this doesn’t apply to you. After all, you are real and what you write is real so your readers should find you to be a believable character. It only it were so.

I contend that it is harder to write about yourself than it is to write about others. And it is harder to write about others in your life than it is to create a fictional character. Why? If you are starting from scratch, you know the importance of developing a person from the ground up so you need to think about many aspects of this person before writing. But when you write about others in your life, you assume you know them and can write about them.

How Many Dimensions in Your Characters?

Have you ever read a memoir when you didn’t connect with one or more people? Perhaps you didn’t understand why they did what they did. I refer to this as the paper-doll syndrome. People in stories should be three-dimensional yet two-dimensional characters frequently populate memories. How does the character really speak? What unique ticks does he have? What was she like as a child and what shaped her to become the person she is? Well, you get the point.

Create Characters through Research

In this week’s Writing in 5 video, I look at David McCullough’s research for the people he writes about. He calls this “marinating the head.” If you think of writing as a straight road to the end goal, then you’ll find McCullough’s comprehensive approach difficult to achieve. However, he is a master storyteller who has refined his techniques over many years. To help us learn from McCullough, I’ve created the brief video below. I hope you enjoy it.

In my video, I showed two brief clips of McCullough. Below is the full video from YouTube. It is called Painting with Words Part 1. As you have guessed there are multiple parts and I hope you’ll go see all of them. They are informative and wonderfully presented. The credits are: Home Box Office, A Playtone Production, In Association with Herzog & Company.

Book or DVD: The Characters are Rich and Textured

I posted a blog on Story Circle Network’s Telling Her Stories about David McCullough’s discussion of language and vocabulary. If you’re looking for the meaning of “spatterdashes” and “diabled” that I mentioned there, you’re at the right place:

spatterdashes – used during John Adams time; “leggings to protect stockings from mud”
diabled – meant “cursed, noisome, ill-smelling

And here’s one I didn’t mention in the SCN blog:

cabinet – a “small private room”

If you’d like to read more about McCullough and how research influences the vocabulary he uses, click here for my blog — The ABC’s of Writing — on Story Circle Network.





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