Borrowing Fiction Techniques 4 - Characters

by Richard Goodman

What about dealing with “characters” in nonfiction?

The fact that the characters in the story are, or were, actually alive can be an inhibitor to good prose. Especially when these characters are well known—and often related—to the writer. They are quite embedded in the writer’s consciousness, and exist in a kind of shorthand in his or her mind. Invented characters do not, because the writer has to start from scratch. They are built brick by brick, as it were, gesture by gesture, opinion by opinion, act by act, strand of hair by strand of hair, so that they are almost as fresh to the to the reader as they are to the writer.

In the case of Caddy in The Sound and the Fury, for instance, it began with Faulkner seeing in his mind’s eye a picture of the young girl’s muddy drawers as she climbed a tree. He built his character from there. In other words, the reader, in one sense, knows the characters nearly as well, or for nearly as long, as the writer. That is not the case with nonfiction characters. The writer often knows them much better than the reader ever will. The reader doesn’t know them at all, to begin with, while the writer may have been living with them for years, either literally—or figuratively, through research. So there can be an enormous gap between reader and writer. If the writer isn’t conscious of this gap, then he or she can leave the reader behind, looking at a shell of a character and wondering where the rest of the body is.

Think of your conversations with your siblings or parents about a relative or a close friend. You don’t have to explain anything to each other. If, for example, you have an uncle who likes to steal ashtrays at social occasions, you don’t have to say, “Well, you know how Berty likes to steal ashtrays at parties.” If you did, you’d be telling the other person something he or she already knows, and it would be more of a conversation opener than anything else. You could just declare, “Well, Berty took another one. And this time he really outdid himself.” This common accrued knowledge allows for a kind of emotional code, or shorthand. Sometimes nonfiction writers write this way, as if their readers know a lot more about the character, or characters, than they actually do. They can be far too assuming. It may be unintended assuming, or subconscious assuming, but it is assuming nevertheless. 

So, the nonfiction writer must step back and consider his or her characters as strangers. He or she must introduce them to the reader, as if the character or characters stepped out of a novel, or out of thin air, as it were. This can be difficult. How do you look at your father, your mother, your husband, your children as strangers? Well, you can. And you must. It’s imperative to make your characters—and this seems quite paradoxical—as real as any fictional characters. They must be built from the ground up.

You can do that with the help of the techniques of fiction, and by being continually aware of the need to make them real.

Character in fiction is defined, basically, in five ways: By what a person says or thinks; by the dialogue that person has with other characters; by what a person does; by what others say about that person; and by the physical description of that person. There are likely more methods, but these seem to me sufficient, at least to begin with.

Here’s how Joseph Conrad shows us his Lord Jim for the first time:

He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, heard forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull. His voice was deep, loud, and his manner displayed a kind of dogged self-assertion which had nothing aggressive in it. It seemed a necessity, and it was directed apparently as much at himself as at anybody else.

These three sentences bear scrutiny. The details are fascinating, starting with the height, “an inch, perhaps two,” which, in its indefiniteness, makes it absolutely precise and indelible. Moreover, there is, in the physical description, a foreshadowing of what we will come to know. The “deep, loud voice” has “nothing aggressive in it” and “was directed apparently as much at himself as at anybody else.” This is the man who left hundreds of pilgrims to die on the open water and must live with that decision inside himself for the rest of his life. The aggression is turned inward. His deep, loud voice is meant for him.

Not many of us can write like Conrad; however, that shouldn’t preclude us from drawing our nonfiction characters more vividly. Conrad is a good model for us in that effort. There’s no reason at all you can’t describe your grandfather or brother or uncle with more dramatic precision by simply paying very close attention to how they walk, talk, sit, run, eat, etc. In fact, there may even be a way to link this to an aspect of their personality, Lord Jim-wise.

As for making a character more three-dimensional by showing us how he or she thinks, one of the classic examples of this is Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground, perhaps the most famous rant in literature.A passage which demonstrates the wonderfully bizarre humor of the novella comes toward the end of Part I:

I’d feel better if I could only believe something of what I’ve written down here. But I swear I can’t believe a single word of it. That is, I believe it in a way, but at the same time, I feel I’m lying like a son of a bitch.

“Then why have you written all this?” you may ask.

Well, I wish I could stick you into a mousehole for forty years or so with nothing to do, and at the end of that time I’d like to see what kind of state you’d be in.

Too true. And what are we to believe at this point?

Of course, the master of the interior monologue was Shakespeare, but we’ll leave the Bard and his fellow dramatists alone and stay with writers of fiction.

In a variation on this, you can demonstrate qualities of your character by showing your readers letters they have written. This has been done in fiction consistently. There is an entire genre devoted to this. In nonfiction, Russell Baker uses this technique ably by quoting from a series of poignant letters from a suitor of his mother’s in his book, Growing Up. The letters were written during the depression, and finally, at a certain point, the writer, a man whose English is not perfect—and this makes the letters even more touching—simply is swallowed up by the hard times, and disappears. His letters reveal matters of the heart that even the surest writer couldn’t capture. Letters are often available to memoirists. They can make a strong addition to a story and show us more of who that person really is you’re trying to tell us about.

Now, how about the idea of making a character stronger on the page by showing what people say about him or her? I think of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. We all remember when the spirit of Christmas to come takes Scrooge to a conversation between two men who are speaking about Scrooge himself. Scrooge doesn’t realize who they are talking about as he eavesdrops, and the men say things none too kindly about him. Then, of course, he realizes they are speaking of him posthumously. What a literary device that is!

Now, you can’t have your characters reveal the future, but you can certainly record conversations that other people have about them. A wonderful example of an entire book constructed this way is Edie: American Girl, edited by Jean Stein and George Plimpton, which is the story of Edie Sedgwick, an Andy Warhol girl, as told by people who knew her. (A movie, Factory Girl, was made about her in 2006.) I don’t think Edie herself utters a word in the book.

It’s one of the most effective and original American biographies ever written, and by proxy, as it were. I think especially of people you want to write about who have recently died. There often are others who knew them and are living, and who can speak about them. This is what Laura Hillenbrand found out in writing her book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend. The three main characters in her book had passed away, but there were plenty of people who knew them, and who had seen the great Seabiscuit race. Her greatest source, Hillenbrand has said about her book, was living memory.

We can again turn to Conrad for an instance of drawing a character by what other people say about him—to Heart of Darkness and the infamous Kurtz. As the narrator Marlow’s boat edges further and further down the Congo, we hear more and more about the fabled ivory hunter Kurtz—and we hear that wonderful line, “The man has enlarged my mind!” uttered by one of Kurtz’s worshipful minions. His reputation grows more grotesquely huge until Kurtz becomes both a god and a devil in our minds. We know him chiefly by what others say of him, and that makes his legend even larger and more dramatic. When we finally do meet him, he is nothing like his legend. The jungle has made a shadow of him. This is the carefully planned shock Conrad gives us. In Apocalypse Now, when Francis Ford Coppola actually shows us his Kurtz in the form of Marlon Brando, I think there is a palpable letdown. He develops Kurtz the same way as Conrad does—by having others speak of him in great and awesome detail. No living being can equal that reputation, and we might be better off, perhaps, never meeting the man.

This technique of building a character by what others say about him or her seems to me quite accessible to writers of any stripe. And quite a good way to create a sense of drama. If, for example, you begin your story with comments and anecdotes about your character told by others, and bide your time before you actually bring this character physically on the stage, you already have a sense of built-in drama and expectation. This was certainly the case with Harry Lime in the 1949 movie, The Third Man. The entire film is one fine exercise in anticipation. We hear all about Harry Lime from various characters in the movie’s post-World War II Vienna, but we don’t in fact actually see him—played with wonderful cynical aplomb by Orson Welles—until the film is almost two-thirds over. By then, we just can’t wait. The screenwriter, Graham Greene, knew what he was doing.     

We can know a character by what he or she does. And for that, look to Henry Miller. As Paul Theroux wrote in an obituary about Miller, he had one subject and that was himself. But he wrote novels, he wrote fiction. He is narrator and main character in most of his books, if not in all. (Even in his critical books. The poet Karl Shapiro said Miller’s study of Arthur Rimbaud, The Time of the Assassins, is as much about Miller as it is about Rimbaud.) So, here you have a narrator whose actions are doubtful to say the least. In The Rosy Crucifixion, his mistreats his wife terribly and abandons his child. He considers his only responsibility to be that toward his own talent. He borrows money from anyone who breathes, fully intending never to pay it back. He glorifies himself in conversation. After a while we get a pretty good picture of the man. The fact that some of us still find him worthy—and I am one of them—is a measure, I think, of other more admirable aspects of his character.

I remember how in Susan Cheever’s memoir, Home Before Dark, she speaks of how her famous father, the writer John Cheever, was poorly paid by The New Yorker and yet chose to remain with them, even in lieu of a much more lucrative offer from I think it was The Saturday Evening Post. He had a family to support, and didn’t make much money, and so the revelation of this decision carries great weight with the reader. We learn something significant about the man.

As for dialogue revealing character, a strong example is Hemingway’s short story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” This story is set in a café in Spain late at night, near or even past closing time, where two waiters are waiting on an old man to finish his drink so they can close up. But the old man doesn’t want to leave. He wants another drink. He likes the café, where he feels comfortable, and can maintain a sense of dignity. Most of the story is a dialogue between the two waiters about the old man. What we learn, just by what the men say, is that the two waiters are very different. One is ultimately sympathetic toward the old man, and the other is not. Hemingway constructs the dialogue in such a way as to show us the lack of sympathy in one waiter and the tenderness and compassion in the other. All with conversation. So, let your nonfiction characters develop on the page with dialogue. Their words will reveal themselves.


This article originally appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle.