Authentic characters are the most important component of a novel. You know, along with an engaging plot, organic settings, some element of surprise...okay, so there are a lot of important components of a novel, but I'm pretty sure that authentic characters are close to the top of the list. Haha! As a writer, though, sometimes it's hard to come up with original, grounded characters.
From what I've gathered, the easiest way to get inspired is to either pillage the lives of your friends and family, or spend time in coffee shops and other public places where people watching is easy and, frankly, encouraged. I, for one, am leery of basing characters on people I know, which puts me in a bit of a pickle because I have a chronic illness that makes me susceptible to every germ on the planet. So for me, hanging out in a public place to rip off...err, I mean get inspired by strangers and their conversations, just isn't possible because I'm pretty much stuck looking at the world from inside.
But not to worry, fellow sicky-faces and/or other writers who can't get out, because I'm here for you! Haha! Over the years, I've found a few great places to get exposure to different types of people without ever going outside. And because I'm hard at work at a new WIP, I'm relying heavily on the notebooks where I've jotted down pages upon pages of observations, all of which have come via my television.
So here are my top six television shows to watch for character research:
1. This is Life with Lisa Ling/ Our America with Lisa Ling
From taking weird drugs in the jungle to amateur porn stars, women who work the oil rigs in North Dakota or the fifty-year-old woman who's recently become an amateur porn star, men who enter the Catholic priesthood and what it's like for family members of those who've committed violent crimes, Lisa covers the most unusual people you could ever imagine. She has a knack for asking insightful, non-judgemental questions (for the most part) and people really open up to her. Hearing raw, true, honest accounts of people's lives--people who are in pretty cool and unique situations--has given me countless ideas when it comes to character professions and motivations. And because everyone is so interesting, these two series are easy to binge-watch, as each story is as fascinating as the last.
2. Beyond Scared Straight
What started as a guilty pleasure years ago, has become one of my strongest sources for heartbreaking background stories. Not only do you get to hear about the youths involved in the program (where "at-risk" youth visit prisons, sometimes staying overnight despite the average watcher's worry about psychological scarring) but you get to hear from the inmates as well. For the most part, they're sad stories--tales of abuse, poverty, and a lack of positive life opportunities.
As any good writer knows, nobody's all good or all bad and a series of poor decisions can alter a life forever. And when it comes to writing sympathetic antagonists, finding ways to place glimmers of humanity where readers least expect them can make quite an impact. So hearing about how kids and inmates got to where they are is a solid tool for character research. That said, there's a chance you'll be haunted by what some of the program members have survived and/or done, so I'd recommend having some vintage Care Bear episodes lined up to watch afterwards.
3. Teen Mom/16 and Pregnant
When it comes to teenage angst with a side of not-so-great decisions, the cast of every Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant know what's up. It's been a long time since I've been a teen--um, I mean, not that long, haha--and when I need to channel a teenager's frame-of-mind, along with the latest in slang and phrasing, there's no better resource than these MTV series. Yeah, they're edited and produced and maybe aren't entirely accurate, but the emotional turmoil caused by major life decisions can't be debated. My heart breaks for these kids, because they really do think that things will just work themselves out and that naiveté comes across in every episode. Plus the fights. OH THE FIGHTS. With parents! Peers! Partners! The law! These guys and gals have a toe in each drama-filled pond, so make sure you've got a fresh notebook before settling down to watch. Those pages will fill up before you even know what's going on. Haha!
4. The Real Housewives Franchise
For over-the-top, self-involved, ego-centric people, The Real Housewives are an excellent resource. Privileged women tend to act in unbelievable ways, making mountains out of molehills and such, but they're interesting to watch because they're honestly upset about problems that many of us wouldn't necessarily consider problems. And unexpectedly, most of the cast members have killer senses of humour, so you'll definitely get inspired on the witty-one-liner front. These gals aren't afraid to mince their words and that makes for extreme conflict. I'm a pretty reasonable, grounded woman, so it's good for me to watch the privileged few lose their damn minds. They also have great clothes, which isn't necessarily good for writing, but good for my eyeballs. Haha!
5. Surviving Marriage
This is a newer show that I've become completely obsessed with. Couples who are on the brink of divorce go into the wilderness with nothing but the clothes on their back, for several days, to save their marriage. As the act of staying in the wilderness without shelter or food for four days would end my marriage faster than you can say "Where's the closest Holiday Inn?", I'm fascinated with their decision. All of the couples's relationship problems are layered and complex, and the extreme conditions break down their barriers and produce raw, unfiltered emotion. When it comes to strained relationships with high stakes (jobs, kids), it doesn't get better than Surviving Marriage.
6. Dr. Phil
I PVR this show every day. Why? Because there are some hot freaking messes on there, guys. For instance, before one particular episode, I was unaware that people solicited for casual sex on Craigslist. Like, with their actual hotel room numbers. Displayed on a public forum where anyone can see it, including serial killers. And, most surprisingly, it seems to work out in a non-murdery way.
(Side Note: what the heck?)
Aside from strange sexual fetishes, there are also drug addicts a'plenty, failed marriages, people who've been catfished, parenting problems, survivors of abuse, and a whole host of other people with big ole problems.
I would like to clarify that I don't agree with most of Dr. Phil says, nor his sensationalization of certain topics, but he has a wide variety of guests and that can make for a great inspirational resource. Mostly because his show is like a box of chocolates and you never know what you're going to get. Haha!
So there you have it--my top six resources for character research. What are some of yours? I'm always on the lookout to expand my character's horizons and I'd love new places to look! If you've got some goodies, please share in the comments!