Writing good nonfiction characters requires discipline and honesty. You can’t just make them do what you want them to do. You have to use the facts to structure your character. You have to report life, not imitate it. To do this well, you have to be observant. For readers, characters consist of four things—what they look like, where they are, what they say, and what they do.
Essentially, creating a realistic portrait of a nonfiction character is all about costume, setting, dialogue, and movement or action. It’s also about “business,” as actors like to call it. Business is the little things a character does while speaking or between dialogue, like putting on a coat, drumming a finger, sipping a cup of coffee, turning on a light, or texting with a cell phone. Each detail adds to the reality of the character you’re trying to portray, and at the same time provides hints about their inner being. Of course, every person has an inner life that is vibrant and active and changeable, but as a nonfiction writer, you can only guess at that.
When portraying a real person, you must use an actor’s tools. Can you, by showing a character doing this or that, make your readers see him or her as you did? It’s a movie or video—light on the screen, shadows on a wall, your marks on the page. Out of all of this a human being emerges.
You have to make the reader watch your character’s eyes as he laughs and jokes. You might even write out some of what the character is saying. You might show him tapping his foot impatiently. Whatever you choose to show influences how the reader perceives that character.
The most important thing in portraying a nonfiction character is honesty and then transparency. You try to show what you saw but with the lens open on the complete experience of the person, with all his subtleties and nuances.
The problem and fun of it is that while being honest, the meaning of your portrait must also be transparent to the reader. So you have to sharpen and shape your observation, much as a painter does. It’s up to you to make choices about detail and angle from all the information that another person in his full humanity offer to you. You strive for clarity and brilliance, position and attitude.
Even a painter of realism is always making decisions about framing and point of view, about light and color, about reflection and detail. He or she chooses which moment to capture on the canvas. It’s much like point and shoot photography. In writing about real people, you want your subject to live on the page, and you want to capture him or her for the reader. To do this well, you have to get inside your character’s mind.
This is the way of method acting. An actor studies the exact person he or she is playing or someone similar. The actor wants a deep and detailed experience of the exterior of their character, as well as how the character thinks, in order to present the character realistically on stage or screen. The actor must feel the character. He or she must steal their character’s soul—if just for a short time. In some way you, the writer, must possess the people you’re writing about, and they must possess you back.
But what happens when you’re writing about another time period?. How do you get into your character’s mind if you can’t meet him or her in person? The answer is research. You must learn all you can about a person through your research. What you don’t know, you must fill in by studying someone similar. To know exactly how a ship’s captain might react just before a storm wrecks his ship, you must study the actions and reactions of other ship’s captains in similar situations. Chances are the actions and reactions will be somewhat the same. Remember, it’s what you choose to show the reader that will bring your character alive.
When you’ve observed closely and written well about a person, you can feel them looking out at you from the portrait you’ve drawn while at the same time you and your readers are looking back in.
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