We writers should take every opportunity to experience the world of our characters. The more we immerse ourselves in a particular culture or setting the deeper we can understand it, and the more realistically we can describe it in our writing.
Unfortunately, cost, distance, or other practicalities (like the lack of space travel or a time machine) may prevent us from experiencing the world our characters inhabit.
That shouldn’t get us off the hook. If we are not able to plunge ourselves into our character’s actual world, we can use a little ingenuity to involve our senses in experiences that help us understand how they might interact with their fictional environments.
The five creative exercises below are designed to help you explore your characters’ world without travelling far from home. The goal is to help you connect to your characters through multiple senses, and to experience objects, sensations, or atmospheres your characters would find normal.
1) Go shopping
Visit local shops and search for specialty items your characters would buy or own. If you cannot find the exact items, look for something similar. Spend time touching them. Notice their heft, feel their textures, pay attention to their distinct scents or sounds. For large objects, try out the floor models or ask for a demonstration. If the store is devoted to a specific type of item your characters are familiar with (winery, feed store, farmers’ market, scuba shop, etc.) spend time absorbing the atmosphere of the store itself. Notice the ambiance, the smells, how the staff and customers interact.
Extra credit: Buy something your character would own and keep it near your desk for inspiration.
2) Take a field trip
Go to a place or event where your character would feel at home. It might be an art museum, a farm, a car show, or a political rally. Absorb the setting details with all five senses, but don’t stop there. Pay attention to the kinds of people who are present, how they act, what emotions they display, and how they interact with the key elements of the setting. If your novel is set in a distant time or place, look for a museum or reenactment group that features the appropriate era or culture. Be sure to absorb as much emotion as possible from historic photos and other details. The goal is find an atmosphere similar to one your characters face, not to recreate their exact setting.
3) Become a chef
Cook a meal your characters would enjoy eating. Choose everyday foods rather than the fancy fare reserved for special occasions. Don’t stress if you can’t find every unusual ingredient, and don’t worry over how authentic your results are. This is a creative exercise, not the Food Network. Do your best with whatever ingredients and recipes you can find. As you eat, pay attention to the unusual flavors and textures. Choose some overall descriptors for what you are eating. Is the food heavy? Smooth? Complex? If you hate cooking, look for a restaurant or other venue (such as a historical group’s exhibition or an ethnic festival) that offers the appropriate kind of food.
4) Do the moves
Does your character have physical skills you know nothing about, such as martial arts, basket weaving, or salsa dancing? Find a few beginner how-to videos on the internet and do your best to follow along. Pay attention to the kinds of skills that are important, such as balance, rhythm, strength or flexibility. Notice which muscles are used the most, and which aspects seem the most challenging. Imagine the amount of practice it would take to become a skilled practitioner. Once you’ve absorbed the basics, watch some advanced videos to see what an expert looks like.
Extra credit: Enroll in a class and become at least mildly proficient in the skill while hobnobbing with other aficionados.
5) Develop voices
If your fictional world is too speculative or remote to simulate with the ideas above, bring the characters into your world instead. Pretend you are an audiobook narrator and practice on selections of your story until you have developed a distinct voice for each character. Allow those voices to help you as you fine-tune your manuscript.
Who said research had to be boring? Close the dusty tomes, turn off the internet and go out to experience your characters’ world. I’ll bet your favorite non-writers will have fun helping you with these (non) writing exercises. Happy exploring!
Lisa E. Betz believes that everyone has a story to tell the world. She loves to encourage fellow writers to be intentional about their craft and courageous in sharing their words with others. Lisa shares her words through dramas, humor articles, historical mysteries, her blog about intentional living and Twitter@LisaEBetz. Lisa also encouraging writers at Almost an Author, where she currently serves as Assistant Managing Editor.