Adding Characters in Your Nonfiction Book

“Do I really need characters in my nonfiction book?”

Only if you want to engage your readers!

Characters are pivotal in your stories, case studies, and examples–the vehicles in which you engage the reader and allow the abstract message to become real and tangible.

Characters are the players in your stories about your clients, colleagues, and about you; they are the voices that capture the heart of your reader by showing your reader that they are not alone.

How do you use characters in your nonfiction book?

While using stories is critical in your book (or for that matter, your posts, articles, or other content), you may want to tread carefully in these instances:

  • When the lead character in your story does something wrong, illegal, or makes a mistake
  • When you need to protect individuals or organizations from embarrassment and bruised egos
  • When you need to protect yourself against litigation

Some classic strategies for using characters depend on a number of factors but might include these.

Ask permission. Some individuals would be happy to share their missteps and help others avoid similar situations, and most would be thrilled to be featured as the example of success in your book. By asking permission and involving your source, you may learn about interesting details or nuances, making the story richer. And many clients will thank you for this opportunity!

Hide the identity to protect the innocent or guilty. Authors can camouflage characters by changing name, gender, age, position or title, company role, or other details. Bob Smith from Pittsburg becomes Maria Gonzalez from Miami, and no one is the wiser.

Create a composite character. There may be times when you want to pull from several examples or stories, so create a composite character to make your story more compelling or understandable.

“Meet my client, Mary . . .”

When introducing your characters to your reader, you can use several approaches.

Generalize them. You don’t always need to name them specifically. You might say, “One business leader said . . .”

Introduce them by name. You may want to be specific, in which case you might say, “My client, Dana . . .”

Create a hypothetical. There may be times when it’s important for your reader to know that you’re creating a hypothetical situation or character. Then you might say,

  • “Take the case of Mary . . .”
  • “Meet Mary . . .”
  • “The following happened to a client of mine. I’ll call her Mary. “

Breathe life into your characters

Make your characters more relatable and authentic by adding dialogue, movement, and other meaningful details. Many of my clients have enjoyed beginning a chapter or new idea with a quote from a character, or even themselves. I have discovered that it is especially engaging when authors begin chapters with not only a piece of dialogue, but something that was said at the point of greatest tension, frustration, or confusion, which invites your reader to join you in your story. “I never knew writing could be so difficult,” may become the opening dialogue in a chapter on overcoming writing obstacles.

Also, consider whether your character has an accent or if they use jargon. These elements will convey context that can eliminate unnecessary narrative. For example, if your character says, “Hey, I don’t know what you all thought, but I’m not getting it,” paints a picture.

Add other details that may tell part of the story. Were they wearing a ball gown and tiara, or a cowboy hat and spurs? What was their posture–slumped, erect, or relaxed?

Allie Pleiter, full-time writer and collaborator with Cathy, suggests using powerful action verbs when involving characters. “She said” may be replaced with “She screamed” or “He pontificated,” bringing added meaning to the dialogue.

The characters you introduce in your book may be characters that stay with the reader through the entire book or may just make an appearance to convey an important lesson.

The choice is yours. But add stories with memorable characters.

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