Ask the Right People
Many characters I’ve spent time with over the years have been closely related to people I know, or people I feel like I know. I’ve based major protagonists on friends (Wes Pellew and Rufus Chang, for instance), and drawn others from real history (Sir Julian Byng and Sir Andrew Skeen, to name two). Obviously the fictional versions must be significantly different than their inspirations (none of my friends have admitted to commanding real space-faring warships) but I find that a real underpinning can help bring any character to life.
For instance, Sir Julian Byng usually kept his hands stuffed in his pockets, even when saluting. That detail comes right out of Canadian history –– you just have to know where to find it. Meantime, Wes
likes hates heights and hates loves soup. I figured that out (eventually) from just knowing him. Similar details have been gleaned from interactions with all sorts of people –– thanks to everything from brief conversations with Canadian frigate skippers to years of work with former-UN Ambassadors and federal MPs, I’ve had the chance to gain insights about very different kinds of people.
But what if a protagonist possesses a very specific characteristic or skill… one to which I haven’t had proper exposure?
We know Stephanie Shylock comes from an interesting background. Her godfather was the slightly-notorious gunfighter, Cameron Kard, and legend has it he taught her to shoot as soon as she was taller than her father’s Krag carbine (a very short rifle). Her resulting adeptness with firearms is integral to her character, and is one of the reasons she’s allowed to join Alex’s lance in Whitecoat. I certainly can’t afford to get it wrong… but there’s a problem: Stephanie is way better with a gun (any gun) than I’ll ever be.
So while I could manage to have Stephanie tell off irresponsible soldiers when they’re mishandling firearms, how could I do her credit when she had to draw her Browning and start shooting like a pro? Well, obviously: ask someone who is a pro. For instance, author and uber-champion shooter Julie Golob:
When I realized I wouldn’t be comfortable writing about Stephanie’s gun-handling without doing my homework, I began looking for the right person to consult. Julie is one of the very best in the business –– I first saw her when she appeared as an expert on History’s Top Shot, and subsequently Top Guns, so I ventured over to her website and sent a blind email pleading for help.
Twenty minutes later, she was very kindly answering my damned-fool questions about the practicalities of world-class pistol shooting, and some traits common among professional female shooters. I won’t spoil the particulars here (wait for Mandarins), but the information she provided has been invaluable –– the sorts of details that can only be related by someone with life experience.
And Julie –– once a Sergeant in the U.S. Army, I should add –– has been happy enough to share. In my experience, those who have worked hard to become exceptionally proficient at something are often willing to educate you, so long as you’re respectful of their time. Thanks to Julie I’ve learned a lot, and Stephanie has certainly benefited. The only downside has been an imposition on Julie’s patience (which she’s been far too kind to comment on).
Moral of the story: if you want to make sure your characters are grounded in reality, don’t be afraid to go find the right people, and ask. It’s great if you can meet these experts in person, but if they’re not nearby, try sending an email. You’d be surprised what excellent help you can find.