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.

Illustration © yaskii • Fotolia

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.

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