There’s not much in a story — be it fiction or narrative nonfiction — more important than well-written characters. But what exactly does it take to write a good character?
For narrative nonfiction books especially (though this is also applicable to other sorts of stories), I can see four main things:
1. The character is someone the author finds compelling.
I love hearing stories about how authors decided to write about one subject or another. This is how Jen Bryant described first becoming intrigued by Peter Mark Roget:
Once, on a long drive across Pennsylvania, I found I’d packed an early edition of Roget’s Thesaurus, mistaking it for the novel I’d planned to read. Resigned, I pored over the meticulously arranged entries, which were not organized alphabetically (like the more abridged, modern versions I’d used), but instead by concepts and ideas. Somehow, the author had catalogued most every word in the English language by its meaning. Who was this man Roget? I wondered. And what compelled him to undertake this immensely difficult task? When I began to poke around in the real, historical details of Roget’s life, I discovered that it encompassed more drama and contradictions than anything I’d written about in fiction.
Chances are good that if an author is truly fascinated by their subject and can’t wait to find out more, readers will be too.
2. The character has depth.
If an author is writing fiction, this comes from their imagination. If they’re writing narrative nonfiction, it comes from research. Authors need to know their characters inside and out: not just the facts, but how their background — their family and culture and time period — influenced them. What were their flaws, their virtues, their desires? What motivated them? If an author understands the complexities and contradictions of their subject, they’ll be able to write about them much more convincingly.
3. The character is both universal and unique.
Narrative nonfiction often presents readers with characters and worlds that may seem very foreign to them, whether it’s a former slave in Reconstruction-Era Mississippi or a bear on the front lines during World War II. But a great author makes sure that readers can recognize what they have in common with these characters despite those differences — the fears and dreams and flaws the character has that might not be so different from the reader’s.
Great characters are also unique, though — that’s often why an author decides to write about them in the first place. Maybe they had some persistence or spirit or ingenuity that made them uniquely able to overcome struggles in their life. It’s this uniqueness that makes a character interesting enough that the reader wants to spend time with them.
4. The author shows the character, rather than telling.
“Show, don’t tell” has become cliché editorial advice for good reason. When an author uses concrete details and actions to dramatize a story, rather than just narrating it, she lets a reader experience the story more directly, instead of having to take the author’s word for it. Take this scene from The Right Word, for example:
Peter’s family moved often, so making friends was difficult.
But books, Peter discovered, were also good friends.
There were always plenty of them around, and he never had to leave them behind.
When he was eight, he started to write his own book.
On the cover, he wrote: Peter, Mark, Roget. His Book.
But instead of writing stories, he wrote lists.
At first, he made a list of the Latin words
he’d learned from his tutor.
Next to it, he wrote their English meanings.
The lists helped him remember his lessons. They also gave him
something to do when Mother peppered him with questions —
“Peter, you’re pale! Do you need some air?”
“Mon cher, do you need a nap?”
“Oh, Peter, won’t you eat something?!”
“Mama, I’m FINE.”
Although, to be honest, Peter thought,
fine wasn’t quite the right word.
I love how much we learn about Peter in just the details from these two spreads. Notice that Jen Bryant isn’t telling us all that much about Peter’s character outright — she’s showing it through his words and his interactions. We learn about his background — a childhood spent moving and an overbearing mother. We learn that he’s a bookish child, and that he’s lonely. That line “books were good friends . . . and he never had to leave them behind” so poignantly captures Peter’s yearning for stability. And that last line (“fine wasn’t quite the right word”) both captures the precision of his character and sets up the action of the rest of the story.
Great characters — be they fictional or historical — are hard to write. But when they’re done well, they can engage readers emotionally in a story like nothing else.
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Kathleen Merz is managing editor for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. Read her From the Editor’s Desk column — packed with editorial insight and behind-the-scenes info on Eerdmans books — one Thursday a month here on Eerdlings.