ABCs of Creative Nonfiction: C is for Character

Posted by on Jul 8, 2016 in Uncategorized | 1 comment

7bwMy writing mentor, Kim Dana Kupperman, loves to remind me that all writing is artifice—that, even though creative nonfiction has a stronger obligation to the quote-unquote truth than fiction, it is not meant to be a literal chronicle of events. That would be journalism. Creative nonfiction is, first and foremost, concerned with telling a compelling story, with all the elements that go into good storytelling, including setting, dialogue, plot, conflict, theme—and character.

I used to worry about getting the details about the people depicted in my personal essays just right. I didn’t want someone I know to object to the accuracy of something I wrote. That doesn’t sound like me at all! Or: I didn’t say those exact words! Or: Come on, it’s at least four to five inches, and about the girth of a kazoo.

Disclaimer: I would never advocate making stuff up or flat out lying in any work of creative nonfiction. It’s creative, yes, but it must essentially remain nonfiction. That said, when we represent people we know in real life on the page, they become exactly that: representations.  They have stopped being real people. They have become characters.

Vivian Gornick, author of the memoir Fierce Attachments, once had dinner with a reader who said, “Wow, you’re nothing like the woman who wrote Fierce Attachments!” before adding, “Well, you’re something like her.” Which is exactly the point. Many readers know enough to understand that in fiction, the first-person narrator should not be conflated with the author. Yet most of us still assume that in creative nonfiction, the narrator and the author are one, which is only partly true. The minute we write ourselves onto the page, we stop being ourselves. My narrator is not me. My narrator is a version of me.

That may sound like some slick double-talk, but remember, our first goal in creative nonfiction is to tell a compelling story, and that requires compelling characters. Think about it—80% of your day is made up of humdrum repetition; driving to the store, getting stuck in traffic, losing a piece of gum between the seats. Your readers don’t want to hear about that. They want to hear about you seeing your neighbor Gladys locking lips with the parish priest in aisle three, near the frozen dinners. We can’t depict every single thing about every single person, especially ourselves. We want only the compelling details—that’s the version that becomes a character. In some cases, you might want to create a composite character out of several real-life people, or even overlook a character altogether if s/he is not important to the story being told. Dani Shapiro wrote an entire memoir without ever mentioning that she’d once been married. The character of her ex-husband simply wasn’t important to the story.

I watched a lot of Sesame Street as a kid. I can sing and recite whole songs and episodes to this day (and often do), but the one song that enchants me more than any other is Cookie Monster singing “C is for Cookie, and that’s good enough for me!” It’s simple, to-the-point, cuts directly to the trait that defines him as a character. I think it provides a good lesson for us in creative nonfiction. Cookie Monster wasn’t necessarily the dessert-fiend that the Children’s Television Workshop made him out to be. In real life, he was actually an aspiring life-coach with a passion for politics, theater, and the environment, who happened to have an insatiable sweet tooth. But the sweet tooth was what made him the character that Sesame Street needed. The C was always for the Cookie. And that’s good enough for me.


Colin Hosten still sings Sesame Street songs in the shower sometimes #SorryNotSorry. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University, and his work has appeared most recently in such outlets as The Essay Review, Thought Catalog, and OUT Magazine. Learn more here.

1 Comment

  1. Recognizing that I’m a character in personal essays and memoir was an important craft lesson for me. Your explanation is a good reminder, Colin. Thanks – and keep singing those Sesame Street songs!

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