Characters are the most important aspect of any good story--fiction and non-fiction. In non-fiction characters are real people, of course, and the stories we read regarding them are facts about their lives. It is a bold writer who makes those facts as compelling as possible.
For example, fireman Joe Burnett makes news because he has saved two children from a house fire. The topic in this case is already compelling, and Joe has performed heroically.
The ambitious non-fiction writer, however, digs deeper and discovers Joe saved the two lives three days after receiving news his job was being cut due to city finance problems. In addition, he gets Joe to talk about losing his job and learns he’s taken his circumstances in stride. He’s been through worse times.
Joe’s a recovering alcoholic who’s got four children and an ex-wife to support. He’s already lined up interviews for a half dozen jobs, and he’s determined he’ll get one of them. He never wants to let his family down again.
A valiant fiction writer, like an intrepid reporter, will seek out all the facts about her characters. Before she writes a word of her story, she’ll know her characters as well as she knows herself. Like the writer and everyone she knows, her characters will be rounded individuals with flaws and virtues. None of them will be all bad or all good.
Like Joe, they’ll have made mistakes, been visited by misfortune and have done courageous things. They’ll have loved, failed, succeeded and behaved badly.
Most importantly, the genuine characters a resolute fiction writer creates will be identifiable to the reader. Realistic characters make a story shine and entice readers to yearn for more.