EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third post in our focused series on the core elements of narrative by nonfiction writer and teacher Lauren Kessler. Previous posts provided an overview of the power of narrative and how to build a story through scenes. A final post in the series will explore effective endings.
By Lauren KesslerScarlet O’Hara, Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter, Vito Corleone, Jo March, James Bond. What do these fictional folks have in common?
They are unforgettable characters. They are embedded in our psyches and imaginations. We feel we know them. And, although we may have little in common with them, we feel a connection.
What if the readers of our stories felt the same way about the people in our journalistic stories—maybe not forever but at least in the moment?
They can. And maybe they should.
Among the things I had to unlearn from my traditional journalism training as I labored to become a nonfiction storyteller was this: The place of people in a story, and the journalists’ attitude toward people in their stories. I had been taught in j-school classes to think of people as either objects in a story or sources of information for that story. If they were objects, things happened to them (they were robbed) or they did things (they opened a business). If they were sources of information, they were mined for usable material. Either way, what you did with people was this: You asked them questions. They answered. You scribbled. If you were lucky, you got a good quote. And, maybe, in between scribbling, you looked around for descriptive details to insert in the story. “Cluttered desk,” you wrote down diligently. “Coffee stain on shirt.”
But really, it didn’t matter if you saw a person — live or on Zoom — or heard a person, or if you spent 10 minutes or two hours with a person, because people only existed to provide information or to answer your specific questions so you could write things about them. My ah-ha! moment about this came after I wrote a story based on a long interview believing I understood the person at the core of the story. I didn’t. That was because during the time I spent with her, I saw her not as a character at the center of the story, not as a person to be understood, but rather as a source from whom information could be extracted. She was a cardboard cut-out — an interesting cardboard cut-out, but an object without life.
Beyond the bio to character
In a recent piece for my Storyboard series on essential narrative elements, I proclaimed that scenes were the heart of narrative journalism. I take that back. Characters are the heart. Characters inhabit those scenes and make them work. Characters propel the story forward. They connect us to issues, bring resonance to facts, make us care. People care about people, plain and simple.
So how do you make a character come alive on the page? Consider those unforgettable fictional characters I mentioned above. What made them come alive for you? You know what they look like, sound like, move like — not just the ones you’ve seen on screen but the ones you have imagined in your head when you read words on the page. You feel you know them: what they want, what they care about, obstacles they face and how they face them, and enough of their backstory to make some sense of who they are.
That sounds like a lot. It sounds complicated. But really, it isn’t. What underlies the art of bringing a character to life on the page is the reporting, which comes down to this: Listen. Watch. Let them be who they are.
Listening does not mean half-listening to a response to one of your questions while the other half of you concentrates on what your next question you be. It means focused attention. It means being sincerely interested — and mostly silent. Watching is not passive. It is an intense activity that takes enormous concentration. It is the learned and practiced ability to see both big picture and small detail in the moment. By “let them be who they are,” I mean stepping back, not directing the conversation or the action but allowing the character to show you what’s important to them, in words or deed.
Reporting tools to reveal character
Consider these six ways we have to bring a character to life:
- What the character looks like
- What surrounds the character
- What the character says
- What the character does
- What the character thinks
- The character’s backstory
What the character looks like might include physical features, clothing, posture, demeanor, or mannerisms. When Nora Ephron — an extraordinary journalist before she became a screenwriter — profiled men’s clothing designer Bill Blass for the New York Times, she began with a deadpan head-to-toe description of his outfit. (The prices are 1968, so don’t be shocked!):
One day not long ago, Bill Blass, who is tall, slender and tawny and speaks with a cigarette dangling from his lower lip, was standing in his brown plaid Bill Blass suit ($175), his brown Bill Blass shirt ($22.50), his brown Bill Blass silk tie ($15) and brown Bill Blass buckled shoes ($50) in the center of the Bill Blass men’s boutique at Bonwit Teller’s.
In Ephron’s deft hands, Blass becomes a walking advertisement, the brand incarnate. You know this guy.
Sometimes it’s the briefest of glimpses that can bring a person to life as a character, that “telling detail,” that says more than it says, that is both descriptive and evocative. Think Scarlet O’Hara’s 18-inch waist. Think Harry Potter’s scar. In a portrait of the pugnacious teamster boss Tony Provenzano, Jimmy Breslin has us readers notice the diamond ring sparkling on the man’s pinkie finger. A diamond. On a pinkie. On a teamster. This speaks volumes. In a profile I wrote of a woman’s college basketball coach, I direct the reader’s attention to the 3-inch heels this 6’3” woman wears as she paces up and down the sidelines. These are small telling details.
Characters also come alive when the reader can see them in context — in their surroundings, their environment. It’s helpful to think like a cinematographer about this, offering readers a pan (a sweeping landscape), a mid-shot (an office, a kitchen), a close-up (a desktop) or an extreme close-up (a coffee cup). The people who surround a character, at work, at home and at play can add context. Animals, too. As Emmanuel Kant is reputed to have said: “You can judge the heart of a man by how he treats animals.”
What characters say (conversation and dialog rather than just quotes) and what characters do (from the boldest of actions to the smallest of twitches) go a long way to bringing them to life. It is matter of being there to listen and notice, to watch as they do what they do, and then to choose the bits bit of dialog, action or inaction that illuminates and reveals. In a story I wrote about a facility that feeds the unhoused and food insecure, I captured the experience and intensity of the chef by focusing on his knife skills.
Ask rather than assume
What a character thinks can also be extraordinarily revealing but difficult to ascertain. As nonfiction writers we cannot suppose or imagine what characters are thinking. We cannot project what we would think in their circumstance and place this inside their heads. But we can ask them, in the moment, what they are thinking. We can, if given access, discover what they were thinking at other moments by looking at texts or social media posts.
Finally, characters’ backstories — the key events that brought them to this place, to world of the story you are writing — can provide insights into who they are. A little goes a long way. A backstory is not a resume, a recitation of achievements or failures. It is, again, the small, carefully chosen detail. When I was researching the life of an American spy for the biography “Clever Girl,” I found out everything I could about her four years at Vassar: every course she took and every grade she got, what activities she participated in. But the piece of that backstory I used was what I learned when visiting her freshman dorm room. It was the last room on the corridor and the only single on the floor. It faced north and was dark most of the day. It faced away from the quad, away from campus. That was her life for a year. It helped me understand her, and I hoped it did the same for my readers.
The biggest take-away from all this is that once you begin to see people as characters in a story rather than sources of information you hold a powerful narrative tool in your hands. People make the story live. They engage the reader. They may even be unforgettable.
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Lauren Kessler is an Oregon-based narrative journalist, teacher and author of 15 nonfiction books.