A two-sided hazard of narrative nonfiction—whether you’re writing about your own life or someone else’s—is of making the good guys impossibly perfect and the bad guys impossibly evil. Novelists face the same problem, of course, but in nonfiction the problem is magnified because you’re writing about real human beings. Creating a one-dimensional fictional character is a common error, but it’s not a tragedy.
Reducing the life of a person who actually lived to one dimension is a tragedy.
If the “characters” in your story are real people, you need to present them as real people. Hence the next two points on the checklist:
☐ Heroes’ flaws are revealed and villains’ humanity is affirmed.
In narrative nonfiction, present your characters as real, authentic people. They need to be fully rounded—it’s a cheat to them and to the reader to present only one facet of their personality. We need to see all the aspects of their humanity, as relates to the story you’re telling.
If you’re writing a biography of one of your heroes, for example, you might be tempted to omit or gloss over things in his life that were unflattering. But if your protagonist is perfect, you’ll lose readers because no one is perfect, so making him seem so is unrealistic. This is why modern writers examine Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings.
Similarly, if your villain is completely evil, with no positive qualities, you’re also going to lose readers because no one is all evil all the time. This is why biographies of Hitler mention that he was an artist.
Ideally, we will feel some empathy even for the bad guy. For example, I worked with a writer who was writing a biography* of a woman whose husband was cruel, bordering on abusive. The way the first draft was written, he was so unpleasant I couldn’t imagine why she had ever married him. So I asked the client to find out. We needed to know there was something good in him. It turned out the woman had married him because he was charming and a good provider.
All right, we can relate to that. We admire a person who provides for his family. We just needed to add that to the book during the editing.
☐ People are treated fairly and without stereotyping or creating caricatures.
People in stories should seem like real people, even if you make them up.
In a parable, you invent characters, but they still need to behave like real people. Characters in parables can be fairly simple, and in anecdotes even more so, but they still need to have personality so the reader will relate to them.
For example, Carl Sagan opened his book Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark with an anecdote about being picked up at the airport by a driver who asks about his name:
“Isn’t it confusing to have the same name as that scientist guy?”
It took me a moment to understand. Was he pulling my leg? Finally, it dawned on me.
“I am that scientist guy,” I answered.
He paused and then smiled. “Sorry. That’s my problem. I thought it was yours too.”
Turns out the driver had the same name as a TV personality. The exchange creates a point of human connection, and the discussion that follows avoids casting the driver as a stereotypical dumb cabbie.
In narrative nonfiction, even the secondary characters in your story need to feel authentic. If you’re writing narrative nonfiction, study fiction techniques to get the hang of this. There are a ton of books on the subject, but the one I like best is Jeff Gerke’s Plot vs. Character.
Don’t reduce people to cardboard cutouts or pawns on a chessboard. Create reader empathy by affirming the humanity of the people you write about.
* — To protect client privacy, I’ve obscured the details here.
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