Populate Your Book with Engaging People

We’ve talked about what sort of nonfiction you may be writing and why it’s important to use stories to make your point. Now we’re ready to dig into the Nonfiction Checklist. The first category, Personality, is equivalent to Character in fiction.

The type of nonfiction you’re writing will determine whether you need to include characters or not. In most nonfiction genres, character development is not critical. If you’re just mentioning someone in an anecdote or case study, we only need to know enough about them to supply context for the illustration.


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If you’re writing biography, memoir, or other types of narrative nonfiction, character development is a must.

Characters in the narrative, whether fictional or not, are presented in an engaging way.

Engaging characters will capture the reader’s attention and build their empathy. But how do you make a character engaging?

In memoir, the “characters” will be real people, but treat them much the way a novelist treats characters. The more you use narrative storytelling, the more important it is that your characters be well-rounded.

For Memoir and other Narrative Nonfiction, consider using fiction techniques.

Characters are engaging when they are admirable or likable. If you have to deal with an unlikeable protagonist at the outset—even if that protagonist is you as you were back then—compensate by giving the reader something to empathize with or something they can admire.

This could be a difficult life situation they could sympathize with, such as unemployment or a dysfunctional family. A lot of us have been there.

Courage. Humor. Kindness.

Bring in some quality like this so your reader doesn’t feel the protagonist is such an unpleasant person they don’t want to spend several hundred pages with them.

To use an example from fiction, Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the most unlikable characters ever. Dickens compensates for that in two ways.

First, he uses a humorous narrator to take the edge off.

Second, he gives Scrooge an empathetic sidekick, Bob Cratchit. We like him and we sympathize with him (how many of us have had unpleasant bosses? Yeah.) so we stick with the story just to find out what happens to Bob and Tiny Tim. We want to make sure they’re going to be okay. Even though Scrooge is a terrible person to be around, we keep reading to find out if the Cratchits are going to be okay, and that keeps us engaged until we see the change in Scrooge.

You can use the same kind of techniques with your true-life characters.


Remember that a parable is a fictional container for delivering information. In a parable, where you’re inventing characters, you can make them as well-rounded or as simple as you like. The characters in Who Moved My Cheese are simple, cartoonish, even, and yet they work.

The characters in The Ultimate Gift, by contrast, are almost as well-developed as characters in a novel. Although this book falls short of the level of craft we’d expect in a novel, it is nevertheless written in such a novelistic style that Amazon has slotted it in both nonfiction and fiction categories.

The more your characters are like characters in a novel than caricatures in a cartoon, the more they deeply they will embed in your reader’s memory, carrying their message with them.

Leverage the Power of Story

In fiction writing, we often say “story is king.” Remember how I define that:

Character + Plot = Story

To make your nonfiction engaging, use stories either on a small scale, like anecdotes, or on a large scale, as in a memoir.

A story may be brief, like Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus.

Note that this story contains a hero (Lazarus), a villain (the rich man), and a wise counselor (Abraham). Those are the characters.

It also contains an inciting incident (Lazarus and the rich man die), a goal (the rich man wants Lazarus to come to Hades and serve him), a conflict (Abraham says no), and a resolution (Lazarus remains in heaven). That’s the plot.

How important stories are to your book will depend on your nonfiction genre.

In a memoir or other narrative nonfiction, story is of primary importance and needs to be treated almost as thoroughly as the story in a novel.

In a parable, story is second only to the lesson.

In other types of nonfiction, there will probably not be an overarching story throughout the work, but brief anecdotes and case studies will support the book’s message. The minimum you need to tell a story is a person with an obstacle to overcome.

mano di free climber primo piano

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Who are your characters?

In nonfiction, the characters could be you and your colleagues, or carefully camouflaged clients in case studies. You may invent fictional characters to use in anecdotes or parables like the one cited above.

Your main “character” may be your reader, whom you will address in the second person. This is often the case in prescriptive nonfiction.

In memoir the characters will be real people, but you need to treat them much the way a novelist treats characters. The more your nonfiction uses narrative storytelling, the more important it is that your characters be well-rounded.

When you are writing a memoir, or any nonfiction based on your personal experience, it’s tempting to make yourself the star of the show. As much as possible, however, try to avoid being self-aggrandizing. Remember that unless you are an A-list celebrity, people are not reading your book to learn about you so much as they are reading your book to learn what you can teach them. The further you get from memoir, the less you should focus on yourself and the more you should focus on your reader.

What is your plot?

Your plot may be a series of life events, in which case you will want to look for a common thread or theme to unite them. You may need to omit those that don’t support the point you are trying to make.

In a case study, the “plot” may be a single event in a person’s life, or a cascade of events. Just as in a novel, we must show the cause-and-effect relationships between actions and reactions whenever possible. Sometimes in true stories, things happen randomly. While this is discouraged in fiction, in true-life stories, although the cause of an event may not be knowable, the reaction should be clearly drawn from it.

If you are inventing a hypothetical scenario or anecdote, ensure that it contains the three elements of plot: inciting incident (the thing that knocks down the first domino in the chain), conflict (an obstacle or challenge to be overcome), and resolution (problem solved, or hero defeated, and lessons learned).

Stories are powerful because they are memorable. This is why Jesus, Plato, and other great teachers of antiquity used them, and why we still use them today. Insofar as storytelling is compatible with your genre and the objective or your book, use it.

Q&A: Do you need a blog?

I just returned from teaching at the Speak Up Conference in Grand Rapids. It was a wonderful event, and I hope to be back next year. This conference started as one for speakers, but because speakers often need to write and writers often need to speak, they’ve added a writing track to the conference. I was invited to teach Editing Nonfiction, and I think it went very well. I had some clever and engaged folks there who asked plenty of insightful questions. I’ll continue my series of blog posts based on that class next time.

question answer

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Today, I wanted to address a question I was asked by one of the writers who came to see me during a one-on-one appointment, because I hear this one a lot.

Q: Do I need to have both a website and a blog?

A: No.

That sounds like a simple answer, but there’s more to it than that. Continue reading

Identify Your Nonfiction Genre

Before we can start editing our nonfiction, we need to know what kind of nonfiction we’re dealing with so we can meet the expectations of the genre.

In fiction editing, we have to keep in mind, for example, the different needs of contemporary women’s fiction compared to futuristic science fiction.

In the same way, the different varieties of nonfiction are handled differently depending on their genre or form. Ideally, you will have identified what form you’re using before you start writing. But in my experience, many new writers just start writing, and they don’t think about what form they’re using until they’re done. Which is fine. Continue reading

How to Edit Your Nonfiction Book

I spent nearly a year discussing the Elements of Fiction, with 92 posts altogether on the topic. Those of you who are writing nonfiction may have wondered when I was going to get to you.

As it happens, I’m teaching Edit Like a Pro: Elements of Nonfiction at the Speak Up Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, this week, and as is my habit, I’ll share with you here what I’m teaching there.

Just like novelists need to address character and plot before looking at description and dialog, nonfiction writers need to look at major elements before tackling minor ones. Take each section in turn, because if things in the first section change, they are likely to have a cascade effect on the other elements. But the reverse is rarely true. Continue reading

Unusual Uses of Excel for Writers

Regular readers know I’m a little spreadsheet crazy. I’ve offered you a spreadsheet for time and motion studies and another for tracking your productivity. And I’m not the only one, because you’ll notice that Michael Hyatt’s ideal week is plotted on a spreadsheet.

When I wrote about tools, I mentioned some of the things Excel spreadsheets can do, and noted that there might be a whole other post in that.

To-do Lists

If you format your Excel spreadsheet using one of the table options under the Tables tab of the Ribbon, you’ll see arrows appear in each column heading. This lets you sort the list by any column. Continue reading

Take Back Your Time

We all have time. Every week contains 168 hours, and they are yours to spend as you chose. The choices you make determine what you accomplish.

time management

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Your schedule is packed. The question is, with what? Your calendar will reveal what your real priorities are. Making room on your calendar for writing—or anything else—means eliminating something that’s already there. Of the things you are currently spending time on, what are you willing to stop doing so you can spend that time writing instead? Continue reading