Advice for creating a non-fiction character based on others

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From the Creative Nonfiction Workshop: Week 4

Last week, we talked about turning oneself into a character in creative nonfiction. This week, our focus is on creating compelling characters of other people. My students read a roundtable consideration on this craft issue that was published in a long-ago issue of Fourth Genre. One of the participants, Donald Morrill, talks about how characters in nonfiction “don’t exist just for our purposes–because they live.” In other words, unlike in fiction, where characters are invented by whatever means necessary, the characters who populate our nonfiction are real people who live or have lived. Morrill goes on to say that what fascinates us about these nonfiction characters is the part of them that lies out of sight. “Most of life is a secret kept by banality,” Morrill says. I love this line because it’s so true, and it’s so much at the center of how we go about creating characters of real people on the page. Just like when we write fiction, our nonfiction characters should be capable of surprising us. We shouldn’t be fitting them to a specific mold of the type of person we determine them to be; we should allow them the free will to be someone outside of type. We should be alert for those words and actions that provide an additional layer to their characters (a layer surprising and yet accurate), and thereby surprise us with what we’ve come to know. We should make our nonfiction characters as round and multidimensional as any unforgettable character in a work of fiction.

I’m mulling over something else that Morrill says: “Character in nonfiction is shaped as much by an author’s omissions as by action.” If our secret lives are hidden by banality, does a reader’s awareness of that fact, lead him or her to believe that there’s always something more interesting just below the surface of any person, or to be more to our focus, below the surface of nonfiction characters? Are the beneficial omissions that Morrill references the aspects of people’s characters that are at first submerged, hidden behind the banal details, but that rise to the top via the skillful hand of the nonfiction writer interested in making characters vibrant for us by peeling away layers of the commonplace to finally hit upon the aspects of the genuine, the parts of people they usually prefer to keep hidden? To me, the omissions aren’t really omissions. They exist as soon as the nonfiction character steps onto the page. They’re just camouflaged. I consider it my job to strip the camouflage away by finding the moment in which this person became someone different to me, someone fuller, richer, more complex.

To help with that, here’s a writing activity that should help you practice seeing more in people than may at first be apparent, a necessary step toward creating more interesting characters in your nonfiction:

(1)       Choose someone you’ve shared space and time with–a parent, a sibling, an aunt  or uncle, a grandparent, a friend, a boss. . .you fill in the blank. Make sure this someone is a person whom you want to understand better. Then choose a particular prop for that person, something specific that you associate with them: a brown fedora, a Scripto mechanical  pencil, an embroidered handkerchief. Find some detail that begins to make this person  come alive to you.

(2)       Close your eyes and remember a specific time when you saw this person holding his or her prop. I’ll give you some memory prompts to help you recall sensory details associated  with that moment. Observe the scene, making a movie in your mind. What do you see?  Allow your other senses to participate. What do you hear? Perhaps, you recall specific lines of dialogue. What do you taste? Smell? Feel? What kind of day is it? What’s the one thing you’d like to ask this person, but can’t? If you did work up the nerve to pose the  question, how do you think this person would respond? When these details are vivid in your mind, open your eyes and start jotting down everything that has stayed with you: the   details, the dialogue, the questions.

(3)        Recall a time that your character’s interaction with his or her prop led to the revelation of another aspect of that person’s character, one that surprised you. Using a limited number of sentences—let’s say between five and ten, so you’ll be sure to make every word count, every sentence precise—present a vivid and multidimensional portrait of this person. Use more than one of the senses. Allow the details to bring out the depth of your subject, simultaneously creating an intimacy with this person as well as evoking the feeling that there’s still more for you and us to know about him or her.

As a way of getting you started, here’s what Theodore Roethe’s poem, “My Papa’s Waltz” would look like if it were written in prose. Notice the simultaneous horror and delight of the moment and the character evoked:

The whiskey on your breath could make a small boy dizzy; but I hung on like death. Such waltzing was not easy. We romped until the pans slid from the kitchen shelf. My mother’s countenance could not unfrown itself. The hand that held my wrist was battered on one knuckle. At every step you missed my right ear scraped a buckle. You beat time on my head with a palm caked hard by dirt, then waltzed me off to bed still clinging to your shirt.

(4)       To what questions does your portrait lead you? What do you want to know about your subject? Answer the questions by beginning a free write with the words, “I imagine. . . .”     or “I wonder whether. . . .” Try to imagine the inner life of this person more deeply than you have previously. Don’t be afraid of the questions you don’t know how to  answer; let the details lead you to explorations of those questions.

It’s interesting to think about how the specific detail can simultaneously lead us to the vivid and the mysterious. How can something known lead to something unknown? What does this say about the resonance of any particular detail—about its reliability or perhaps its error? As writers we’re taught to trust in the specific, to rely on the things of the world to carry emotional and psychological significance, and yet it seems that the precise detail can open a world or a life in a way that illuminates while also pointing toward darkness that the writer must try to navigate. That’s all to the good because it requires further writing, and in the process, if we’re open to the exploration—if we’ll only follow the details—we’ll discover more of the truth of a situation or a character than we perhaps knew existed. All because we trusted in the details and how they can illuminate while also challenging us to uncover more.