“Nagle was forty years old then, a thin, deeply tanned former Snap-On Tool Salesman of the Year. To see him there, waiting for the fisherman in his tattered T-shirt and thrift-shop sandals, the Jim Beam he kept as his best friend slurring his motions, no one would guess that he had been an artist, that in his day Bill Nagle had been great.” — Robert Kurson, Shadow Divers (Random House, 2004), p5
In one masterfully crafted paragraph, author Robert Kurson not only creates a visual impression of deep-sea diver Bill Nagle, but also conveys the trajectory of his life and imbues him with tragedy. Sure you can get character descriptions like this in any decently written novel. But Bill Nagle was a real person, and Shadow Divers is nonfiction.
Can you draw a portrait in a few pencil strokes? If you want to grab and hold your reader’s attention, you need to be able to create lasting impressions in readers’ minds. Among the most important — and hardest — impressions to craft are those of people.
Fiction writers describe characters as a matter of course. But nonfiction writers must be able to do this as well, and perhaps for them it’s even more important. They are, after all, writing about real people.
Whether you’re writing a celebrity profile or interviewing the new CEO, you can adopt techniques for developing fictional characters to turn real people into memorable characters.
Whether you’re writing a short article or a long biography, strive to convey the maximum amount of information in the fewest words. Don’t expand the description to fit the word count, and certainly avoid providing a simple laundry list of characteristics.
And if you’re meeting over lunch, unless you’re profiling the person’s digestive tract, please don’t describe what the person ordered.
Fiction writers often create brief (one- to two-page) character synopses to track their essential characteristics. Synopses also serve as touchstones for identifying behavior that would be out of character. This is perhaps of less importance when dealing with real people because they have their own internal consistency; however, you must be able to discern and convey that consistency to the reader.
The essential elements of a character synopsis are:
- Age. Not just chronological, but also indications of the person’s emotional and psychological maturity.
- Physical description. First impressions of height, weight, hair, eyes, and other physical characteristics.
- Habits. How the person stands or sits, what he does with his hands. Nervous laughter? Favorite phrases? Make notes as you’re interviewing.
- Personality. Pay attention to whether he comes across as formal or informal, comfortable or awkward, confident or hesitant. Does he enjoy talking about himself and the subject at hand? Does he rely on notes or anecdotes? If he invokes his past to explain his present, note the story down. If it was important enough to mention, it will be important enough to consider when writing the piece.
Consult your synopses frequently as you write. Even if you don’t manage to work in every little bit of data you collected — and in fact you shouldn’t try to — you’ll probably find that you’ve conveyed most of those characteristics through your choice of words.
Good characterization doesn’t create vapid cartoons; it creates vivid sketches.