Some people tell writers to “write what you know”, but most of us don’t. There are after all only so many novels of mundane modern life that readers can take before they demand something that will take them out of their own lives and into someone else’s.
So many writers are in the position of writing about people they are not and things they’ve never done. Which is where research comes in. Research is a tricky beast for certain genres. Like for Liar’s Waltz I couldn’t research what life is like on a space station inhabited by several thousand people – there aren’t any of those! On the other hand I could check out info for towns with similar numbers of people and find out for example how many hospital beds they need, how many police officers, how many schools, how many bars – that last one being key!
When researching people I think there’s a special responsibility that falls on the writer. If you’re writing about people in a group you are not part of – like me writing about gay men – you have to do more than research them, you have to take their feelings, their problems, their issues seriously. Respect them. The people I am writing about are made up, but real people deal every day with those issues and suffer real consequences and real pain. If I don’t treat the feelings and problems of the characters as important I think it shows disrespect to those real people.
I don’t think this only applies to people writing “serious” books. It applies even to people writing comedy or fluffy romance. However “light” the book might be, if you’re dealing with people in love then the stakes are high. Love matters to people, and being disappointed in love or heartbroken matters. However hilarious, or light-hearted the journey to find love – or realise that person wasn’t worth your time anyway – if the writer doesn’t treat the characters feelings as mattering the reader won’t care either.
You also can’t just research and create a character from stock characteristics supposedly shared by people in a group. Certainly they have commonalities – that’s why they can be classified as being in a group. But a writer needs to respect the individuality of people. Everyone is different, even those who on the surface actually take on the role of a totally typical member of that group. Humans are very clannish. We like to belong to groups and easily take on the typical behaviour, attitudes and appearance of the group. But a writer who doesn’t get below the surface to treat a character as an individual is using that character as a mere cipher.
Respect your characters and their feelings. They matter to the character, so they’d better matter to the writer too, or they certainly won’t matter to the reader!