Character Development

Traditional nonfiction, particularly journalistic nonfiction, never concerned itself with developing characters. Fiction writers worked at characterization; nonfiction writers concentrated on events. Creative nonfiction writers say that because so many events occur as the result of human interactions, the event cannot be fully understood without also understanding something of the people (characters) surrounding it. The word "character" has been so long associated with fictional characters that I hesitated to use it in this nonfiction context, but I could find no suitable substitute. Please bear in mind that the "characters" talked about here are real people, and most of the time I'll be referring to their character—that is, what makes them tick.

When I write about character development, I'm talking about how the writer goes about revealing a person's character—how the writer develops the revelation, not how the real person develops character over a lifetime. The creative nonfiction writer does not "create" characters; rather, he or she reveals them to the reader as honestly and accurately as possible. Like most contemporary fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers reveal character much as it happens in real life—bit by bit.

When we first meet a character (person) in real life, no one reads us a résumé or life story. We learn a few tidbits about that person's background and form some initial impressions about the person's character by what we talk about, what that person said in response to what we said, how it was said, what words were used, and the like; before the next meeting, we may hear what other people (friends and others) say about the person; in subsequent meetings we form more impressions and revise earlier ones. In the case of spouses, for example, we may go on learning more and more for fifty years as his or her character continues to be revealed, bit by bit.

Writers don't usually have fifty years to collect data; they must collect what they can when they can, and then, very selectively, choose those bits that seem to reveal character best. They reveal the bits in a sequence that is reasonably connected with the unfolding narrative and simulates life in its nonlinear, unpredictable revelations, spreading pieces of characterization through the article or book instead of trying to reveal all aspects of a character at once.

I've discussed a variety of techniques for revelation in previous chapters. These techniques serve several functions, making them extremely valuable to know about and use. In a single piece of captured conversation (Chapter 6), for example, we might hear references to several concrete details that resonate in our memories and stir up emotions while, at the same time, the diction and the specialist language (Chapter 5) used may give us one or more dimensions of the character. When considering what to use from captured conversations, select those pieces that serve multiple functions, when possible.

The fiction writer creates dialog that serves several narrative purposes. The creative nonfiction writer, by contrast, cannot create dialog; he or she can only select those captured conversations or comments that do some of the narrative work. Why select one conversation or comment that serves only one purpose when you could just as easily select a multipurpose one?

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