Avoid Making Real People One-Dimensional

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Characters speak like real people

New writers’ manuscripts are often marked by unrealistic dialogue. Many things can go wrong in characters’ speech, but this is one of the biggest. If the characters’ conversations sound fake, readers will drop out quickly.

Conversations are natural and realistic.

When I say natural, I refer partly to the idea, mentioned last week, that a character’s background and personality will be reflected in their speech.

One fault I often see in manuscripts from people who spent too much time in academia is a lack of contractions. Continue reading

Give characters distinct voices

Editors talk a lot about voice, and it’s a tricky thing to get a handle on. For one thing, there is an authorial voice; that is, each particular author has their own writing style that comes through regardless of the setting or topic of each novel. I prefer to think of that as writing style—though there’s got to be a better term for that—and preserve voice for talking about characters and narrators.

If you are writing in deep POV, your narrative should carry the same voice as the POV character. If you are not writing in deep POV, avoid generic narrator voice and give the narrator a distinctive voice of its own. (See The difference between your voice and the character’s voice.)

Each character has a distinct voice suitable to their temperament.
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The end of your novel is about characters

Lots of stuff is going on at the end of your novel. There’s action and revelation and emotional upheaval. But it all must be presented in terms of what’s happening to the people.

Ideally, your characters will be proactive. There’s probably a whole other blog post in that. Characters who have stuff happen to them are far less interesting than characters who make stuff happen. So, as much as possible, rely on character action and agency rather than circumstance and accident. This is true throughout the story, now that I think of it, but it’s especially important in your climax and denouement. Continue reading

Avoid late character introductions

There’s a lot that goes into crafting a satisfying ending to a novel. So I’ll take a little longer covering this point than some of the others.

One problem I sometimes see, even in published books, is a new character suddenly introduced near the end for no apparent reason. Any new character who shows up at the end had better be a bit player, or had better have an organic reason for being there. Preferably both. Continue reading

Avoid using coincidences to move plot

When you’re escalating the stakes and getting your protagonists into deeper and deeper trouble, a great principle to keep in mind is this one from the “Pixar Rules:”

Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Authors of yore used to employ coincidence all the time. Since many writers are well versed in Dickens and other classics, we sometimes try to use those same ploys. But the coincidence trick is much harder to get away with now. This advice from filmmaker Emma Coats, a former Pixar staffer, puts it in perspective. Continue reading

Determine your most appropriate POV character

I’ve said that character is the most important element of fiction. Some editors disagree, and will say plot or point of view is more important. I’ve given my reasons for why I feel as I do about character. Here’s why I put viewpoint before plot on my list.

Viewpoint, or POV, is closely linked to character, regardless of which viewpoint style you choose. Viewpoint is the channel through which the reader experiences the story, so I understand why some editors put it first. But you can’t have viewpoint without character, even if the only “character” is a bodiless narrator. Continue reading