Researching people

Boiled down to basics, there are two kinds of research a writer does before and even during a novel. The first is getting the world building right. Even a contemporary thriller requires some research. The late great Dick Francis meticulously researched for his novels, because even though he’d lived all the horse racing stuff his books were set in disparate and fascinating worlds: merchant banking, luxury rail travel, the wine-selling business, the stock market. Writers of private eye or police procedural novels need to know the ins and outs of the law and criminal investigations. And of course those of us who revel in speculative fiction, be it space travel or how to mount a siege on a walled town, spend months up to our eyeballs in history books and documentaries.

But the other kind of research is equally vital. Writers need to have an intricate grasp of what makes people tick, because without it characters end up as cliched caricatures of living, breathing human beings. We must turn ourselves into amateur psychologists, minutely dissecting the motives and meanings and outcomes of people and their various behaviours, so that the people we write into our books are deeply human and thoroughly authentic.

One of the very best ways to do this (aside from studying any handy friend or relative, which isn’t always a good idea because a: there are some things we’re better off not knowing and b: there’s a good chance the handy friends and relatives aren’t going to appreciate you playing Freud with them) is to indulge in a spot of judicious reality tv watching. Now, I say judicious because there are some reality shows that frankly are worse than the very worst tabloid newspaper you can think of. They’re beyond fake, totally staged, and more fictional than any space opera tv show you could name.

No. I’m talking about the genuine reality shows that focus on an interesting topic then let the cameras roll, fly on the wall doco style. And while yes, I freely admit that these shows are often edited for effect and sometimes stage managed for same, but at the end of the day a lot of the time the cameras record real and truthful moments. The great thing about this, for the writer, is that they capture people and situations and truthful emotional moments that most likely we’d never get to witness in our day to day lives. And because we can record these shows we can take our time examining the people, the moments, the psychological revelations, over and over again, and really nut out what’s going on and who these people are and what makes them tick. Which is what we need to do when writing really good characters in our books.

The reason I’m nattering on about this when I should be doing housework (no, I’m not trying to avoid the work, I will get back to it as soon as this is done) is because in the background Property Ladder is playing on the Lifestyle channel. This is a brilliant show if you’re interested in house renovations, but it’s super brilliant when it comes to people watching. Because if you have ever had difficulty wrapping your brain around the notion of people doing really obviously stupid things to the detriment of themselves, their friends and families, their bank balances, their lives? This show is a petri dish of delicious examples that will give you a millions chances to unpack the crazy. It’s a Macy’s parade of self-deluding plonkers who display such a startling breadth of ignorance it’s a wonder they can even tie their own shoelaces. Like the boggling pair from yesterday, the married PhD scientists who decided gosh, how hard could it be to renovate a period cottage? Golly, only morons chose to work in trade after all. Those poor benighted souls lacking the sheer exquisite brilliance possessed of a PhD-graced scientist, if they could do it then clearly the task must be about as challenging as packing boxes in a sheltered workshop. Or this morning’s precious duo, who did no research – of prices, of the area, of realistic returns, listened to no professional advice, insulted the show’s incredibly experienced host to her face, then declared that the local real estate agents weren’t capable of understanding the value of their property. Surprise surprise, things did not end well for the last pair. And the first pair survived by the skin of their teeth. Contrast them to the friends who made a big mistake in buying a property at auction without ever stepping inside it (!), but who then went on to solicit and listen to the expert advice, juggle their decisions with an eye to achieving a profitable outcome, and embrace the chance to learn and grow. They won big time.

I find this show particularly useful as I prepare to write about people who are in involved in literal life-and-death situations, men and women about to ride into battle. We all know that history has recorded some seriously big blunders committed during war. Or politics. And sometimes we look at that situation and think: Are you kidding me???? How could you be so bloody stupid????

Sometimes reality shows can help us understand how bloody stupid blunders happen. They show us ordinary people reacting to extraordinary events … in a fascinating variety of ways. They can broaden our comprehension of people who are very different from ourselves, who see the world through truly alien eyes, whose shortcomings and blind spots lead them into making some really stupid choices.

Some of the reality shows I think can be useful for writers are: Property Ladder, Location, Location, Location, Project Runway, Great British Bake Off, The Apprentice and The Amazing Race.

Do you have any favourites? How do you go about people-watching for research purposes?

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