Have you ever created a character different from yourself in some significant way, such as (but not limited to) different gender, race, ethnic group, religion, or sexual orientation? If so, what, if any, research did you do to portray these differences? Was this character a main character, secondary character, or walk-on? Did these differences have an impact on the story?
I have characters that are completely unlike me, especially the male jock characters or, of course, the supernatural characters. But when it comes to my female MCs, I generally try to actively make them different from me in some way. I make them more edgy, more courageous, more feisty, smarter, funnier, tougher.
Lately, with my new MC, I find myself giving her qualities and quirks that are completely alien to me. The way she responds to circumstances are the exact opposite of how I would act.
Though, making my characters different from me seems to be a recent development. My first MC was very similar to me in a lot of respects. She acted the way I would act. But as I've written more, I find it sort of liberating to explore aspects of human nature that are alien to me. I find myself wanting to branch out into uncharted territories. Specifically, I've thought a lot about writing about people from different ethnic or religious backgrounds, explore areas I don't know much about. I love to learn - and writing about something or someone who is so different from me is a great way to do this.
For research, I mostly people watch. Observe how people act. Ask questions. Especially when it comes to male characters. Having people read my manuscripts helps a great deal, especially my target audience. Also, when I write historicals, I do quite a bit of research into the attitudes, actions, personality traits, and characteristics that were in vogue and popular during whatever time period I am writing about. Actions that are acceptable in 2010 were probably scandalous in 1810 - stuff like that requires some research time. And if I ever delve into a character who is from an ethnic or religious background that I don't know about (and even if I do know something) I'll research those areas also.
Bottom line, I want my characters to be authentic and believable. The more I know about every aspect of their personality the more "real" they'll be. And I'll research, ask, watch, and experience any and everything I need to in order to make that happen.
Don't forget to check out Laura's blog for her answer to this question, and stop by Shaun's blog tomorrow to find out his thoughts :)