This post, by Rick Meyer, originally appeared on nieman storyboard, a project of the nieman foundation for journalism at Harvard, on 6/1/05.
This essay is adapted from Rick Meyer’s notes for a talk at the 2005 Nieman Narrative Editors’ Seminar. Rick’s presentation was paired with Laurie Hertzel’s talk on scenes.
We probably ought to declare something right away, so no one can accuse us of cheating. In nonfiction, when we talk about building characters, we’re not talking about creating them. That happens in fiction. In our world, God creates the characters. That’s his or her job. It’s our job to write about those characters.
But it is true, nonetheless, that writers build characters. First, when they report them, they take them apart and put pieces of them into their notebooks: Pale, amber eyes. Red hair. Freckles across the bridge of her nose. Talks softly and slowly. Perfume like lilacs. Then when they write these characters, they put the pieces back together, back into whole beings. If they have done it well, these people come alive. They inhabit our imaginations just as vividly as fictional characters do.
Maybe more so, because when we read about them we know they’re real.
What happens to the main characters in the stories we edit is called the plot or the story line or the arc of the narrative. We ought to develop plots, or story lines, through scenes as much as possible. I’ll try here to suggest some ways to develop the characters in those scenes into full, three-dimensional figures. In other words, I’ll try to suggest how to make the characters come alive, how to make them come up off the written page.
None of these suggestions is original with me. I’ve picked up these notions along the way from editors, reporters and writers, teachers and folks who write about writing. They include Jon Franklin, John Gardner, Jim Frey, Tom Wolfe, Mark Kramer, Gay Talese, Sol Stein, Walt Harrington, John McPhee, Jacqui Banaszynski, Elmore Leonard, Barry Siegel, Jack Hart, Kit Rachlis and Norman Mailer. If there’s anything unique here, it’s only because Willie Nelson might be right when he says, “If you steal from enough people, somehow you end up doing your own thing.”
My suggestions number a baker’s dozen plus one. To illustrate them, I’ll use a piece you might be familiar with. It’s an old story by now, published in 2002. But it has some pretty good examples of what I’m going to talk about. It’s Sonia Nazario’s piece about a 17-year-old kid named Enrique, whose mother leaves him behind in Central America and comes to the United States to find work. He is so torn and lonely for her that he sets out on his own, by foot, riding on the tops of freight trains, hitchhiking on trucks, all the way across Honduras and Guatemala, up the length of Mexico, then by coyote across the Rio Grande and illegally into Texas, then finally to North Carolina to hunt for her. Forty-eight thousand kids do this every year. Some are only 7 years old. It’s a new and extremely dangerous migration. Sonia’s story won a Pulitzer.
Many of the things I’m going to talk about Sonia did on her own. A few I suggested. Some are suggestions I wish I had offered but didn’t have the good sense to at the time. A number might make you yawn, because you know some of these things as well as or better than I do. But maybe there’s a notion or two here that could be helpful. It sort of goes without saying that Sonia and I talked about things such as these all along the way — as she reported, while she drew up her story architecture and during her writing. If you wait to consider them until the line editing gets under way, you’re way too late.
Here are the suggestions:
Build characters by showing their actions. Sometimes you’ll be tempted to develop characters by saying who they are. Show them instead.
Shaq was tall. That’s telling it. Shaq ducked to get through the door. That’s showing it.
My father was easygoing about religion. That’s telling.
Every spring, my father let me skip catechism class so I could play baseball. That’s showing.
From “Enrique’s Journey,” here’s an example that tells first and then shows:
Uncle Marco and his girlfriend treat him well. … Uncle Marco gives Enrique a daily allowance, buys him clothes and sends him to a private school.
I could make a pretty good case that you shouldn’t do both. It’s redundant. In retrospect, I’d suggest to Sonia that we take out the first of those two sentences.
Get character-building information by asking for examples, anecdotes and vignettes.