Character in Nonfiction

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

You can renounce food, shelter, sex—but you cannot renounce character because, at the very least, it is the expression of the body in time. This is why, in the most immediate sense, character is destiny (as the Greeks thought) or character is the threat of fate (as the more optimistic contemporary social scientists assert).

The word “character” derives from the notion of the memorable, what impresses itself on memory. You cannot renounce making an impression on others if your living flesh is present. You cannot flee presence, however much you may travel out of the body. And neither can a character in prose avoid making an impression (if a character in prose would ever have such an aspiration) because character’s presence begins with the first word put down: that incarnation. 


We most often talk about nonfiction characters in terms drawn from fiction because there are more terms for describing the attributes of fiction. And there are more such terms, I suspect, because fiction is, by its nature, the more circumscribed entity. Nonfiction is sometimes called the fourth genre, but the idea of nonfiction as a genre is, to me, irksomely unsatisfying. Nonfiction is too encompassing to be one genre, and the insistence on calling it such is a little like the defensiveness and trepidation in the term “creative nonfiction.” If we crave a critical terminology for nonfiction, it is because we wish to legitimate it as an art form. But the task of devising that vocabulary is much, much larger than it is for fiction, poetry or drama. 


With the possible exception of more formulaic and more rigorously impersonal types of nonfiction, such as journalism and technical manuals, at least three dimensions of character are always operating in nonfiction, and in ways unique to one of nonfiction’s sub-varieties.

There is the character portrayed and/or examined, the subject. There is the character of the author, even if it is not the overt subject. There is the author’s imagined sense of the character of the reader. Strictly speaking, “characterization” only occurs in nonfiction because only in nonfiction is there a character whose traits and attributes are being portrayed and betrayed—a character, however fluid and coreless and ineffable that exists beyond the words on the page. Nonfiction operates in relation to a specific referent beyond the text, a referent that must be transformed into a text, rather than the merely “probable” (that quality for which Aristotle, valuing imaginative literature over history, praised the former as the more effective device for understanding human action).

Fictional characters exist only to support the fiction; there is no elsewhere for them. (In this regard, it might be said that all fictional characters are truly “flat,” even if they are said to be “round.”) No fictional character is affected by having been in a fiction, as a person might be by inclusion in a nonfiction work. No character in fiction can actually respond to the author who has written about him or her; there is no risk of litigation from the imagination.

Nonfiction can omit some element of a subject’s character without suffering the reader’s wrath. But to invent is unforgivable and undermines the primary bargain of nonfiction. Witness the 1999 flap over Edmund Morris’s compensating fictions in his biography of Ronald Reagan. Morris was excoriated because he drew too close to the work of the publicity department, that pseudo-nonfiction entity that told us the first words out of the former president’s mouth when he awoke from surgery to remove an assassin’s bullet were “Honey, I forgot to duck.”

Nonfiction allows the reader to wonder what the character it has portrayed or examined is doing now, this minute—provided that character is still alive—or what that character did after the period covered in the writing.

The term “character profile” admits that there is more to know about the nonfiction subject than the non-fictionist can reveal, that there is at least another side. And memoir, of course, often sails toward the ever-receding horizon of the self.


Unlike the fiction writer, a nonfiction author puts his relationship with his subject on display, always and unavoidably, for the reader’s examination and surmise. We are invited to wonder about the character of the nonfiction writer because we know he is interacting with his subject somehow, not just acting upon it, and he is wondering what the reader will also think about his character. When character is the subject, most often the nonfictionist is a hunter and the quarry knows that he or she is the quarry. Not so in fiction writing.

As readers, we believe we are closer to the motives of the nonfictionist, because he doesn’t have deniability written into his contract with us as does the fiction writer. (He doesn’t have even implausible deniability.) For all the psychologizing of novelists and short story writers, fiction is not a verifiable indication of the character of its maker. Given the terms of fiction writing and invention, who can really assert anything about the character of Bret Easton Ellis by reading American Psycho or Harper Lee by To Kill a Mockingbird? Who would want to?

The treacherousness of the problem puts me in mind of an observation by the marvelous nonfictionist Adam Phillips: “Knowing is what we do to other people when they’re not around.”


The fiction writer is never a companion to the reader as the nonfiction writer is, because the relationship of reader and fiction writer is never as overtly social—that is, the reader’s judgment of the author’s actions and thoughts are not part of the meeting from the start. (Those who insist on reading fiction as some type of confession are really wishing for this more overtly social relationship, not the pleasures of an anonymous voice.)

On the flyleaf of a used copy of Moritz Thomsen’s beautiful book The Saddest Pleasure, I find the former owner’s name and, in the grand handwriting of one signing a Declaration of Independence, his critical assessment in a single phrase: “a sniveling work of sad despair.” It’s difficult to imagine a happy despair, though the paradox is delicious enough. But more important, what does this reader’s disdain mean? Certainly it is related to the social dimension of nonfiction. A dreadful novel does not usually translate into the summary condemnation of the author’s character, but a dreadful memoir points to a dull soul indeed. Perhaps the flyleaf critic was looking for off-the- rack inspiration in Thomsen’s book and was frustrated. Perhaps he—for the critic was a he—possesses a low threshold for personal revelation or finds introspection to be “navel-gazing,” so Thomsen betrayed him as a companion.

Of course, I am invited to wonder this way about the character of the flyleaf critic because his brief statement teems with expression. Nonfiction invokes a persona for the author as fiction does not, even if the persona lurks obscurely only in the author’s tone and syntax. (For example, Edward Gibbon’s majesty.)


Paradoxically, the nonfiction writer is also more alien than the fiction writer in her relationship to the reader because she is generally more present—and in this presence there is an implied invitation to the reader to presume, even though a reader cannot finally presume about the author. After all, the author’s life is going on, has gone on, and only a portion of it (a very small portion of it) is registered or rendered in the writing that tenders the invitation to speculate.

In our actual lives we know most people only by story, so it might be useful to ask how the story at hand tries to know that person—and how the story defines that person’s character for us to perceive. Nonfiction, it seems, tends to treat character realistically, to a significant extent, given its referential nature.

Fiction writers like W. G. Sebald in The Rings of Saturn or Chris Kraus in I Love Dick, for instance, try to blur the distinctions between nonfiction and fiction in the opposite way that Morris did, apparently to raid nonfiction for the glamour and alienation of veracity.


If the Athenian character-writer Theophrastus composed sketches of virtue, they have not come down to us. His portraits of vice, however, have survived, no doubt because they carry the bite of satirical truth: in them we see others. We have all endured dinner with the Chatterers because they are friends of the Braggarts who after all are the guests of honor, and so on.

Such writing assures us that character can be cataloged and mapped, and that at least the writer can be wise about it. The typical can be raised to a status that claims our attention. Categories can comfort and obscure the proliferation of demographics and target marketing.

Nonetheless, grave limitations haunt this kind of nonfiction. As one scholar observed succinctly about Overbury, Earle and the other great English character-writers of the sixteenth century (and this could also be said of more recent contemporary character-writers, like Elias Canetti), “truth is often sacrificed to epigram.”


Perhaps what is most typical—or most apparent—about character in our time is its plasticity, the splendor and terror of its manifold possibility. Character as symptoms, or perhaps character as researches into ways of being. I think of the great modern poet and essayist, Czeslaw Milosz, who reminds us “how difficult it is to remain just one person, / for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, / and invisible guests come in and out at will.” And Pascal: “There is no man who differs more from another than he does from himself at another time.”


Consider, if you will, the following speech as if it were uttered by the protagonist of a novel:

I was one of the trees in this dark and forbidding forest. I knew what it meant to live beyond the reach of other men or God. I had “proved” everything I had felt the need to prove: that I couldn’t be scared or broken or driven to my knees, that I didn’t give a damn. But here is where the tragedy lies: this felt need is compulsive and negative only. It is a need to prove one can do without—without love, without faith, without belief, without warmth, without friends, without freedom. This negative need to prove becomes progressively greater and greater . . . . The ultimate (conscious or unconscious) need is to prove that one can do without even life itself.

Now consider what it is—a statement by the murderer Caryl Chessman, from "The Life and Death of Caryl Chessman,” by Elizabeth Hardwick.

I would argue that the simultaneous transparency and opaqueness of character—those dual attributes of character as we experience it in the flesh—are given credence by the understanding that this is a statement, however invented, by an actual person. The statement was made, it occurred, without service to a plot of a novel or short story. This fundamental possibility, along with the possibility for character to elude us even as it appears, is among nonfiction’s central enticements and claims to vividness, and is peculiar to it.


Finally, consider another murderer, Oedipus, were he actual and thus at the mercy of nonfiction’s acuities and limitations. What could we expect to learn, or experience, of character from his memoirs? from the secret diary he kept nightly all those years in the palace? from his history of Thebes up through his own reign? from his guidebook of mentoring letters to a young prince? from his meditations on virtue and vice?

Were we composing a character profile of him, or our own history of Thebes, do you think Jocasta would confide to us everything we hoped to know about Oedipus the boy and about her first marriage? What kind of interview, if any, could we get from the Sphinx?