No matter whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, developing your main characters is vital. If readers don’t care about your characters, they won’t care about your book.

There has to be something compelling that drives a reader to keep reading. So, if the story doesn’t do it, the characters need to.

Basically, your credibility is at stake. And if readers don’t believe in you, you’ve lost.

I will focus on the non-fiction efforts for this particular post.

When writing non-fiction, your characterization is limited to what your sources tell you. There are plenty of times we WISH a character would have said something they didn’t, but we are limited to the verifiable truth.
If you include anything in a non-fiction title that isn’t a verifiable fact, you have essentially written historical fiction.

So, let’s get into a few ways to do that.

First, research, research, research. Your main characters should be as fully researched as possible, especially if this is a true crime book. You need to know as much about your main characters as is absolutely possible. You won’t necessarily use all that information, but it is crucial for YOU to have it. You need to know these characters as well as possible.

Think of the victim of a true crime story. Your responsibility as an author is to tell that person’s story accurately and compellingly. Any liberties you take with the truth is a disservice to the victim, the victim’s family, and to the law enforcement and others who worked the case.

In that same vein, it is also vital to know the perpetrator of the crime well. Any liberties with the facts on that character can skew the tone of your work and hurt your credibility.

But how can we characterize these characters without a ton of personal information on them?

There are a number of things we can use. First, their background and upbringing are important. Tell us where they came from. In addition, any tidbits from them are useful. If you have a source with interaction with that character, it may be valuable. Is it something that shows us the nature of that character? If so, you can use it. Any small tidbit you can add is helpful.

Think of this. It can be the smallest things. Maybe a character loved toy cars. Maybe they eat peanut butter a lot. There are tons of small things like that that gives us a glimpse into someone. These can be both negative and positive things. What kind of relationship did they have with their parents? Did they have a lot of friends? Do they do charity work?

What I’m saying is – do all your research.

You can also research the time in which the characters live. Showing your readers factual information about the way in which people lived is also very illuminating.

Use the opinions of others. While someone’s opinion of someone is subjective, it can be useful. You have to discern what is useable and what isn’t. People are biased. Those biases show in their opinions. So, as long as you frame opinions from sources as opinions, you are fine.

Essentially, this all comes down to research. You need to be using as many sources as you can possibly find, interviewing everyone you can and finding those tidbits. If something seems small, hold onto it for later. It may be useful.

But don’t dismiss small bits of information outright. Mine through them to see what they might offer to help form your characters.

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.

– Harper Lee

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