Now this one seems very straightforward, no? Everybody knows you need fully fleshed-out folks in your novel.
Great writers fashion fabulous characters.
But did you know that this holds equally true for narrative nonfiction? Writers are often shocked that the “real” people in their nonfiction works need to come to life every bit as much as they do in fiction.
Because characters drive your story—whether your story is a Western, a Literary work, a Memoir, or a business book.
Wait! you say. What do characters have to do with how to drive sales to your business, or how to get along with your spouse?
Ahh, for the same reason your protagonist and antagonist drive your novel—so that people will read it.
So, why, exactly?
Let’s dive into some of the reasons.
- Let me take a wild guess: You’ve read both fiction and non, and felt the words on the page so dry the paper feels like cracking. You. Just. Can’t. Seem. To. Read. Another. Word.
Chances are, no people are in there to connect to. The material may be luscious, the prose may sing. But it’s as if the nuclear holocaust occurred and all the living beings were killed.
Even the cats.
Without someone for the reader to latch onto, the work dies on the page.
- Perhaps unsurprisingly, in nonfiction, the reader especially wants to connect to you, the author, the expert.
Being an expert, while at the same time, accessible, is a fine line to walk. You’re probably already an expert in your field if you’re writing a nonfiction book. But your reader still wants to be able to connect with you.
And to do that, the author has to show not only her expertise, but some vulnerabilities as well, even if that’s about how what she’s touting fixed whatever (from a neurosis to a dilapidated house).
Self-effacement works very well in nonfiction. But that’s a fine line as well—too much, and you’ve just lost your authority. Or, you risk sounding flip.
Just make sure you’re a real person, on the page.
- Of course, in a novel, characterization is king, as again, it’s the people who drive the story. And so often what I see are names on a page, whom I can’t keep straight even with a map.
That’s because these folks are cardboard, one-sided, and have no resonance for your reader (or your book editor).
When you create complex folks who drive your story, your reader is in for the ride.
- Let’s be honest—only three-dimensional characters are interesting.
You know how sinners are usually far more interesting than holy folks? (Unless the holy one is a big sinner too!). They make you want to dig down and find out why they’re so bad. What makes them tick. To see if deeply buried some redemption still survives.
Character who are “too good” are boring. Those who are “too bad” aren’t believable.
As Dr. Elizabeth Kübler–Ross said, “There’s a little of Hitler in all of us.”
The outlaw with a heart of gold lures us in. So does the fallen saint.
- The fact of the matter is, they keep you guessing.
The more complex a character is, the more he surprises you (and this holds true not only for readers, but for the author as well).
Isn’t it fabulous when a character takes you down a road you’d never foreseen? Doesn’t that make your heart race? It does for your reader as well.
You know, like the older lady next door, who bakes cookies for the charity or school for every bake sale. You know her right? And isn’t it wonderful to know she also works for Doctors without Borders? Or, conversely, runs an escort service on the side?
And of course, one big thing that keeps readers turning the page is curiosity.
- Here’s a clue: If the character is flat, he has nothing to learn. No place from which to grow, and nothing to grow into.
And in novels, your main character has to grow and change to be real, to be interesting, and for your book to have a point.
- In essence, these are the folks your readers “come to know.”
Just as in real life, you get to know these characters in bits and pieces. Like the guy at the post office who’s smiled and helped you for years. And then one day you learned his daughter was killed years ago in a car wreck.
And now, don’t the rest of the pieces of him fit? Such as now and then when you walked in, you found him staring sadly into space . . .
We all have sorrows few people know about. We’ve all knelt at different graves . . . Find those in the happiest of your characters.
So many ways exist to deepen your people, to flesh them out, to make them skin and muscle and bone.
Are skills required? Of course. Work with your book editor on deepening these skills. She’ll help you create these multi-dimensional characters.
And that’s what makes for a satisfying experience for your reader, and a great book, and puts you in the category of successful author.
How can you resist?