When you set out to write about a nonfiction character, you set sail on a journey that will not only experience tempestuous winds, but you also have to learn to tame those winds to provide a smooth ride through the ongoing storm. Your reader should not only get to know your character and sense an emotional flux, the experience should leave them feeling fulfilled in some way. As if that weren’t a hard enough goal to aspire to, it should all be done in a way that creates a pleasant reading experience, as well.
Recently, I had the honor of reading a memoir that was just like that. The story effortlessly glided over perilous ground with emotions that shifted quicker than a sudden mudslide. Yet, as a reader, I felt both involved, but somehow kept at just the perfect distance to keep me sane and calm.
That’s what I want to find more of as an editor. If I can put down the manuscript and not care what’s going on with the characters, there’s either going to be some heavy editing required, or I’m going to put it down and not care about picking it back up – permanently. A lot of that has to do with how the author built her nonfiction character.
Fiction vs Nonfiction Characters
Whereas you can carefully mold your fictitious characters to help build your story, your nonfiction characters come pre-molded. As an author, it is your job to pick out the jewels of experience that entrance and optimally showcase your character. Just because it would be convenient for your character to have done such-and-such, you generally can’t add gobbledygook and remain true to your character very long.
Now that being said, I think we all agree that the best fiction characters are the ones that always seem to fit just outside the perfectly molded character for the story. Humans are flawed—that’s a universally shared commonality, so we like to see flaws in the characters we’re reading about.
Separating Flaws from Faux Pas
No one cares much if you slander a fictional character. Oh, the readers may get irked if you slight one of their favorite reads, but the character itself is oblivious to all the hubbub. This is not the case when you’re writing nonfiction. Even if the person in question is no longer able to hear or experience the repercussions of a slanderous or untrue portrayal of their character, they likely have a family that will.
While you’ll want to keep the flaws in your nonfiction character, you just want to be sure you do so with a purpose. Flaws are human, but there are tactful and needlessly tacky ways of exposing them. That’s an important distinction in nonfiction character building.
Pearls of Wisdom
My suggestion is this: Before you embark on the journey of writing a nonfiction tale of woes or joyous affairs, take the time to create a plan and then revisit your character.
- What is the main point you intend to make?
- Do most of your scenes directly influence that point?
- With each of the flaws you’ve exposed, do you offer your character a way to recover later?
- Have you exaggerated any attributes and to what purpose?
When you’re building your nonfiction character, you’re also exposing your own relationship with that character. While as a reader I want to know all about the character, I also want in on that relationship. That’s the part that either grabs me or loses me, because it’s that relationship I want redesigned and opened up so I feel like it’s my own.
Pull me in and let me know why you stayed through all the trials and tribulations. Why did the character keep going? I know as long as you’re breathing, you can’t escape your own life, but give me more than that. I want to know what it is about the character, whether that character is you or Abraham Lincoln that made you kept caring.
Whittle me down to self-reflection and then inspire me back out of my despair. That’s how you build character, and that’s how I want you to build your character—while being truthful to yourself and your reader.