Dealing With Characters in Non-Fiction.

Not every writer aspires to write a novel. Although I have stumbled into a passion for both writing and reading flash or bite fiction, my book-writing aspirations focus almost exclusively on writing non-fiction.

By non-fiction, I’m not referring to something along the lines of memoir and motivational writing. However, a few years ago, I stumbled upon some gripping stories through my family history research, which were writer’s gold. You know, the sort of stuff which could easily be described as “the Big Bang”.  After all, as the saying goes, “fact is often stranger than fiction”.

Anyway, after having yet another monumental tussle with a character this week, I thought I’d share a few peculiarities I’ve encountered dealing with characters in non-fiction.

Obviously, the very clear distinction between developing characters in non-fiction, is that your characters are or were real people. They’re not products of your imagination, even if they were inspired by real people.

This places certain limitations on how you construct and develop your character. For example, you can’t just make up where they lived, their occupation. Moreover, something real has happened to spark the story in the first place. So, as the author, you’re not really in command of character development or plot. Indeed, you’re role is more that of a meticulous restorer, than a designer.

Using the Proust Questionnaire.

This is where turning to the Proust Questionnaire can be particularly helpful, as it allows you to focus on and bring out the idiocyncracies of your character. It poses a series of questions, which may be used to “interview” your character. Here’s a brief snap shot, which was taken from the Vaniety Fair version.

1.__What is your idea of perfect happiness?

__2.__What is your greatest fear?

__3.__What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

__4.__What is the trait you most deplore in others?

__5.__Which living person do you most admire?

Character Have Limitations in Non-Fiction

Clearly, with your characters being real, this places all sorts of restrictions and limitations on how you can develop your character if you are trying to be truly authentic, rather than using a real person as a launching pad into fiction.

With the pieces I’m currently working on, I’m trying to be as authentic as possible. Indeed, I am in effect being, in effect, more of a restorer, than a designer. I’m working with my tweezers and magnifying glass to get those little details right, and yet at the same time, using a broad brush to create suspense, action and all the usual tools that you usually use to make a story worth reading. After all, a reader has no obligation to read anything we write, and there has to be an exceptionally good reason for them to even read the title, let alone the opening page. The days of readers bowing and scraping to the almighty author are long gone. We are the ones who need to get down on our knees and thank the reader. Be thankful they gave us their precious time.

Meticulous Research, Minimal Use.

This is why you don’t want to burden your reader with too much detail, even though you may have volumes of research. They should only see the tip of the ice berg. That’s not to say you don’t need the ice berg, but the reader is also interested in the other bells and whistles. You need to know your stuff. They need to know you know your stuff, but they don’t want you to regurgitate it all over them.

There is beauty in simplicity, something I’ve been appreciating more and more through writing and reading flash or bite fiction. A well-chosen object, piece of clothing, or even the use of language, speaks volumes. You don’t always need to write a novel.

Best Guess is Good Enough.

Another challenged I faced writing non-fiction, was working out about how to fill in the gaps. There’s stuff I don’t know. Can’t find out. Making things up bother me. Was it lying? However, I don’t believe there’s any harm in a best guess scenario. After all, the lines between fact and fiction are really quite blurry once you look into them. There’s always an overlap. Well, at least, that’s my humble opinion. I certainly wouldn’t call it “lying” or “fabrication”, and I am fairly fastidious about getting historical detail right.

The Character Drives Plot. The Author is the Passenger.

This week, I struck a another challenge peculiar to writing non-fiction. You are not writing or making up the plot. Rather, your character is in charge, and doesn’t care whether their next step is going to scuttle hours of work, and your entire philosophical position. No. They just do what they like and all you can do is structure and arrange facts and events, through your own editing lens.

The project which brought this to light, was actually my family history research. While I have been developing a series character sketches, which I’ve been posting on the blog in preparation for a book, I actually had nothing to say about my 4th Great Grandfather, John Johnston. I couldn’t find anything.

Plot is Unpredictable

However, after 20 years of passive research, I found out John Johnston was convicted of bigamy in New Zealand in 1864. Indeed, not only was he still married when he married my 4th Great Grandmother, Maria Bridget Flanagan. They even had four children, and it wasn’t like they weren’t living nearby either.


This could well be John Johnston approx 1886.

As you could imagine, this changed a lot of things. Indeed, it actually changed his name. He was known as “Alexander John”, despite having a younger brother who was Alexander.  Moreover, instead of immigrating directly from Scotland to New Zealand, I found out that he had been living in Liverpool. Indeed, he had married Jane Ellen Jones at St James Church, Toxteth Park, Liverpool in 1855. Alexander John and Jane Ellen then lived with her parents for four months. They ultimately had four children and at least two of them were born in England. Alexander John moved to New Zealand around 1860 and three months later, Jane Ellen and the children sailed out. They settled in Dunedin where Alexander John was licensee of the Argyle Hotel until he went off to the diggings.

Understandably, my impressions of John Johnston nose-dived sharply. Although I’d never found any signs of greatness,  family legend had it that he’d built the North Sydney/Cammeray Suspension Bridge in Sydney in 1892. As it turned out, that was built by his brother, although we’re sure he was in there somewhere. Previously, I was thinking very much in terms of right-hand man, not the family charity case. Meanwhile, his other brother, Angus Rutherford Johnston was some kind of Indiana Jones type character who’d fought in Nicaragua, had been shipwrecked and captured by Indians, escaped, found gold and settled in Nanaimo, Vancouver Island where he ran a successful store. This has been, and continues to be, a family of high achievers. I’d always thought it was just a matter of time until I found out that John had built a railway, a monumental bridge or somehow made a name for himself somehow, and certainly NOT as a bigamist.

I won’t go into the ins and outs of the bigamy case here, except to say that he stared straight at his first wife in court and denied being married to her, despite their four children. Indeed, when he took the the detective round to see his wife, he really seemed to apply the charm: ” Jane, my girl, you wont prosecute me,” You see, it was actually the Crown which was pursuing the case. In the end, “Alexander John” was found guilty and fined. He got off lightly on a technicality.

However, it wasn’t just the bigamy, or his denial which shot him down in flames. He was also a perpetrator of domestic violence. In 1863, he attacked Jane Ellen with a knife:

Threatening to Stab—Jane Ellen Johnston I charged her husband, Alexander John Johnston with threatening to stab her with a knife on the 13th inst. The defendant was required to give bond to keep the peace towards her for six months, fined in the amount of £lO, and to find two sureties tor £2O each.”

Otago Daily Times, Issue 464, 16 June 1863

I knew nothing about this a week ago, and as you could imagine, it changes everything. I was shocked right to the very core. After all, you don’t really need much of a sense of ethics or values to know this man was a bastard, or at least capable of acts of pure bastardry.

However, as if all of this wasn’t already bad enough, it gets worse. Much, much worse.

On the 8th February, 1866 Jane Ellen and Alexander John’s nine year old son found a pistol, which his mother thought was safely out of reach. Jane Ellen was out in the garden weeding with two of the other children, when she heard a firearm exploding. Nine year old, Thomas James Johnston had shot his 15 month old sister, Ellen Overton Johnston, in the chest and she died. He didn’t know it was loaded.

Clearly, real life has now moved into the pits of hell, and to compound his first family’s agony, Alexander John was off living with my 4th Great Grandmother, Maria Bridget. Indeed, their son Angus had been born on the 6th January, 1865 and Margaret was born roughly a year later.

This wasn’t the story I was planning to write, even for my own consumption.

Of course, not all non-fiction takes such a turn for the worst. However, the story of John Johnston certainly illustrates that you need to be prepared for surprises, and somehow make the necessary adjustments.

The Challenge of Writing My Own Motivational Memoir.

I’ve faced different, but related challenges, working on a motivational memoir, known as: “The Book Project”. Just as I thought the plot was reaching it’s climax and about to trail off to its “living happily ever-after” conclusion, fate stepped in and the book was dead.

You see, I was working on a motivational book about overcoming my severely debilitating auto-immune disease, dermatomyositis and for 12 months, I was soaring. Flying high. I’d managed to all but turn my mountain around. I’d lost 10 kilos despite being on the fat drug, prednisone. I’d taken up the violin despite my disabilities and had played at a happening local music venue at our end of year concert. I’d started my blog and had built up an online blogging community. I’d also gone on an adventure camp where I’d gone parasailing, driven a quad bike and gone down the water slide on the boat without my glasses on, and had ridden a camel. I’d also managed to return to work one day a week as Marketing Manager of a local IT company and was also helping out in my son’s classroom as a volunteer teacher’s aide, and sometimes took the class. These were all things not only I had deemed impossible. It was all there in black and white, or at least shades of grey. The grand finale for the book, was going to be skiing down the Front Valley at Perisher, which would represent turning my mountain. Unable to climb a mountain and ever the individual, I’d decided to ski down the mountain instead.

Indeed, I did it. More as a terrified, quivering wreck of my former self, but I’d pulled it off.

However, even while I was still  down at the snow, I developed the beginnings of a severe chest infection, which blew up into pneumonia. One night while coughing uncontrollably, I briefly even stopped breathing. Meanwhile, a CT scan on my lungs showed that I’d developed fibrosis as a complication of the dermatomyositis, and suddenly the thrill of soaring steadily upwards, came crashing down and didn’t stop at ground level. It kept falling. Seriously, at this point I thought I was looking at a death sentence. Twelve months to live. I’d smacked into the wall, and I was all but a dead duck.

This wasn’t how the Book Project was meant to end. You can’t write a motivational book, which finishes off with you drowning in your own lungs. Come on. That’s not even a story you could give away, let alone become that guaranteed best seller I’d written in my head right down to the second last page.

Fortunately, my doctors put me on a series of chemo infusions of a drug called cyclophosphamide and five and a half years later, I’m still here, and I’ve been in remission ever since. Amen!

While these plots certainly plunged unexpectedly deep into the dark side, they do illustrate how when you’re writing about real people, the author is not in charge. Indeed, you’re much more of a passenger, than sitting in the driver’s seat. Indeed, you can see that at work even when I was writing my own story, although in that instance, it was fate which stepped in.

Clearly, this has become a very lengthy post, and so I’m going to stop it there and turn it over to you. Have you ever written non-fiction? How did you face and overcome some of the hurdles involved? It was be great to get a bit of discussion going.

Best wishes,


15 thoughts on “Dealing With Characters in Non-Fiction.

  1. Tails Around the Ranch

    Currently working on a non-fiction book about the journey with adopting Elsa right now. It’s definitely slow going and much harder than I thought it would be. If only my brain would retain brilliant ideas when I’m walking (and observing) her every day. 😉

  2. maxwellthedog

    For years I wrote very technical, lengthy proposals for big business. Heavy duty stuff on matters like airport development and such. Totally unlike anything you’ve described. Different skill set, mind set and techniques. Hehe, no wonder I scribble a silly dog blog these days. Btw, I loved the adventure sports photos of you, Ro! You’ve had some great experiences – heck, camel riding alone should get you a prize!

  3. Rowena Post author

    It’s interesting the different paths people take, and never belittle your blog, I love it and it’s very well written and has a great sense of humour. Clearly, you had suppressed it when you were writing all those reports and saving it up for later! That Adventure Camp was quite funny. It was put on by Muscular Dystrophy Association and I found myself doing all these things I never thought I was capable of, but because I knew they understood my limitations, I felt quite safe to step out there and have a go. Although I think there’s only one photo of me wearing my glasses on the blog, I am considered “severe myopic” and always wear them. So going down the waterslide on the boat without them, was the most challenging activity for me. Snowboarding down that dune was a bit scary the first time too. The camel ride was terrifying for a whole different reason. One of the other participants freaked out and all but jumped off her camel and I think she tried to grab me or something. It was quite reminiscent of a drowning person taking the nearest bystander down with them. No more camel riding for her.
    I think I need to do something like that again.
    Hope you’ve had a great week.
    Best wishes,

  4. Rowena Post author

    I’ve never considered doing my family history brave before, but after my discoveries in the last week, I can see your point. From what I have seen in my family, there’s the good and the bad, the ups and downs. It has made me quite mindful of what my own legacy will be, though. I think it’s an important thing for each of us to consider. You don’t need to be a big wig to make a difference to the world again you.
    Best wishes,

  5. Rowena Post author

    That’s great you’re working on your journey with Elsa. It’s a beautiful story. You have a great sense of humour in your posts, so if you can relax and let that shine through, you’ll do really well.
    I am currently keeping a notepad beside my computer and have another in my bag. Post it notes are a great idea too for jotting down those brilliant ideas, which seem to fly straight through your brain when you don’t have a pen handy.
    I went to a very good workshop on structure and it talked about the hero’s journey and using that to structure your book. He wrote movie scripts and using that same four act format for his memoir. It worked really well. He cut up a moving box and turned four pieces of cardboard into Acts I through to IV and as I ideas came to him, he’s jot them onto a post it and stick it on the appropriate piece of cardboard. I haven’t really tried this myself. However, I’m always conscious of having that twist at the end when I’m writing my flash fiction pieces. Writing and reading those every week have been a great educator for me.
    Hope you’re having a great week. I went and visited my friend today who got me into the dog rescue group. She is currently looking after a guide dog pup who is almost ready to leave and has an 8 year old Golden Retriever x Cavalier and she’s just beautiful with the most gorgeous golden fur. She was very shy and nervous but came to the door today. I’m hoping my friend might keep her. She’s so gentle and soft. Very much like a golden version of Lady.
    Anyway, had been keep moving.
    Best wishes,


    Yes, I do agree. You are also brave to write so transparently about your own life — certainly a compelling story, and one which inspires me in my own struggles. (You are also the only person I have heard of who managed to lose weight while on prednisone. That is amazing – I always blow up like a pumpkin.)

  7. Tails Around the Ranch

    Thanks for the kind words. The initial rough (and I do mean rough) draft was too dull and clinical so I scrapped it and decided this story would best be told in my voice. Surprisingly, things came a bit easier though it on the dog walking adventures that seem to be the best place for good ideas. The rest of the time is pure labor. Juggling two leashes, poop bags, cell phone, treats doesn’t leave much room for making notes. And then there are the interruptions, like snarling dogs and squirrels. I have to be prepared to hang on and not turn into a human kite.

  8. Rowena Post author

    It sounds like you’re on a better track. You have a wonderful writing voice, so try to have faith in that. When you think about how stories are structure, you have your hero and your villain, which is simplifying things a bit, but the squirrels could make great villains as well as providing comic relief. My perspective on squirrels is probably a bit different because we don’t have them here and their cute mischievous ways could perhaps be more better appreciated from a distance. Also, that perspective from the omniscient narrator watching you struggle with two large poodles, cell phone, poop bags etc could be quite funny and getting paws and feet all tangled up. Your nightmare is someone else’s comic relief. Zac often ends up become a canine kite when we first set out. He’s a bit of a maniac.
    Anyway, there’s just a few ideas.
    Best wishes,

  9. Rowena Post author

    Unfortunately, I think the weight loss on prednisone was the Cinderella effect. It stayed off for quite awhile, but I’m on very little pred now, but the weight has packed on. I’m thinking some serious action is required, but in true dieting fashion…it will all start Monday. I’m just not specifying which one.
    Best wishes,

  10. Tails Around the Ranch

    Many thanks for the suggestions. Oh yes, the 3-ring circus, aka daily walks, are a wealth of inspiration. 😊 Lately the problem has become my inner voice seems to have picked up a bad case of laryngitis. When that happens, I have to wait until it comes back to pick up where I left off. Hopefully it won’t last long. Cheers!

  11. Rowena Post author

    You made me laugh, Monika. I only found my inner voice through blogging. I didn’t used to write so much before and it was more piecemeal. I came to realize that I actually had a sense of humour. It wasn’t exactly a surprise, but I used to see myself as being more on the sensitive side. It was interesting.
    Perhaps, you should try a few throat lozenges.
    Best wishes,

  12. Nancy Mitchell

    Hi Rowena … I am in Nanaimo doing a short genealogy bio of Angus Rutherford Johnston and his wife Zillah Cooke … love that his brother is a bigamist. Can you email me with their parents … there is so much confusion as to when Angus was born and who is father was (I say Angus W Johnston). Regards, Nancy Mitchell, Nanaimo

  13. Rowena Post author

    Hi Nancy,
    Great to hear from you. My email address is rowenanewton at Could you please email me and provide some more detail about your project. I have quite a lot of information nd a few contacts.
    Best wishes,

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