Nonfiction Writing is Enhanced by Memorable Characters…but Details about People from the Past Can be Hard to Find

1. Create a timeline of the important events of your main characters’ lives, with all the known details: race, nationality, marital status, education, religion, profession.

2.If there are photographs, document how she looked.

3. What are your assumptions and feelings about this person? (Try the exercise described with the  photograph below. For some historical figures a picture or two and some superficial details is all there is to work with–forcing you to speculate.)

4. Write short (2-5 pages), no frills, biographical sketches of each of the characters.

Revisit Research Materials in Search of Character Clues & Sensory Details

Writing Exercise: Write about what you see in this picture of Lily Dale Grow Wilson in the 1890s, both the physical details and the personality traits they reveal. Now test your assumptions on this blog post: . Were you right? It's surprising how much information a photograph can reveal.

Writing Exercise:  Describe what you see in this portrait of Lily Dale Grow Wilson in the 1890s. Focus on both the physical details and the personality traits they reveal. Now test your assumptions on this blog post: Were some of your assumptions right? It’s surprising how much information photographs reveal.

5. If you have questions or quandaries about these people so will your readers. Note your questions and try to flesh out details.

6. Review your research to document aspects of their daily lives. Are there clues to personality in their actions, likes, dislikes, living circumstances, and accomplishments? If you have letters, a journal or an interview, is there underlining meaning to things they wrote? (Is some of this quotable, to allow them a direct voice?)

7. Are there sensory details embedded in period photographs of this person or the place she lived? Do these details crop up in archival records? It’s this info–above all others–that allows readers to ‘see’ and become fully engaged!

8. Did they have speech patterns and mannerisms that reveal personality?

9. Do their actions and accomplishments reveal their life goals, overall, and in the context of your narrative? And—this is important—what got in the way? (Trouble is at the core of memorable stories. A happy tale of unmitigated success does not make for a compelling read.)

10. What were the ‘consistent inconsistencies’ of these people’s lives—things that didn’t add up? (Perhaps one of them loved nature, but he was a rapacious hunter and fisherman.) Did any of them want things that were at odds with other aspirations? What patterns of thought and behavior worked against their life’s goals? These are the ‘inconsistencies’ that make people relatable and intriguing.

11. Were there times when your characters made discoveries and decisions? These are moments that go beyond simple forward movement of the story. Something happens, plunging your subject into the realm of irrevocable change. This is where deeper reader interest lies.

12. As you plan the narrative and start writing, think about the five methods of character presentation: (a) authorial interpretation (the writer presents the info, perhaps in summary); (b) appearance (the reader infers what’s going on by the appearance of things); (c) speech; (d) action. Breeze over the background info as authorial interpretation, but–wherever possible–let readers ‘see’ your characters in action through appearance, speech and action.

Thanks to Janet Burroway’s book Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craft, for the basis of these character development points.